ILONA…Journey of a Hungarian Model …from Hungary to the USA

Ilona Halasz was one of the busiest and most sought after models in the 1980’s and 1990’s in Hungary. The still astonishingly beautiful businesswoman could be the envy of Hollywood stars. With her imaginative outfits and radiant personality she grabs the attention of men and women from Budapest to Florida.

Ilona is a true diva, untouched by the passage of time. She was discovered at an underwear show, followed by a continuous stream of requests for appearances. She participated in numerous fashion shows in Hungary and internationally. She remained active after moving to Florida. Fashion continued to be a part of her life, even today she performs in photo sessions and film shoots. However, she saw the need to continue her studies and earn a college degree. In addition to organizing photo shoots and fashion shows for American companies, Ilona, still a striking beauty, teaches in her own modeling school, named ”Ilona Studio”. I faced a difficult situation with her: as we started the interview, she immediately radiated such femininity, sensuality, gentleness, and at the same time fiery sexuality that resonates with not only us men, but with women as well. Tamás István, talked about her life and career with the successful model.

– As a little girl, did you like to dress nicely or did you think about being a model some day?

– As a toddler it was becoming apparent that this kid will someday be near a stage. Many stories are still told today in my birthplace, Zalamerenye, about the always moving, dancing, singing, performing curly-haired little girl who wanted to entertain everyone, and who always invented something to be the center of attention. This did not come as a big surprise to anybody, since I was genetically programmed this way. There was plenty to inherit from my parents; they both like to sing and dance and are good at it. Dad is still the life of the party. He can tell the funniest stories about his youth and elders. He sings, plays the violin and the harmonica. He can recite tons of poems, and in my opinion he was the most handsome man in the world in his youth, – says Ilona with a smile.

– What was your Mother like when you were young and what is she like now?

– My Mother? I think she is the most beautiful woman in the world. Slender waist, no makeup, just a touch of lipstick and powder. I wish I could have been as beautiful („made up” as Mom says) as She is without makeup. Recently she confessed to me that, as a little girl, she wanted to be an actress. She begged my grandfather to let her go to Budapest, because if they won’t allow her to be an actress then she will be a nun! Fortunately, she did not become a nun, because she fell in love with Dad and I could come into this world. I must have been around three years old, when I begged my Mommy to sew me a very loose skirt with a flower pattern. Of course, I picked out the fabric, so it would flow when I would spin and dance. My Mommy sewed all of my clothes. She could do it all: crochet, knit, embroider. And I was always at her feet. This way I learned what I could because I wanted to know everything without help. I had a definite opinion about everything. I must have been four when I threw a fit, because the color of my cardigan did not go with the color of my skirt. There was no color in the pattern of the skirt that matched the cardigan. That is a good enough reason, isn’t it? – asks Ilona, laughing. When I was 12, I slenderized my school gown so much that I could barely breathe. And I cut off a bit from the bottom to make it more „mini” style. I hemmed it so well that my Mother, instead of a strict admonition, smiled and praised the nice quality work.

I must have been about four or five years old, when I demanded that they teach me to read. I took tons of books home from the library. At first only fairy tales with large print: Brothers Grimm, Andersen, and whatever I could find with nice pictures. Then I sketched the clothes worn by the princesses, colored them, and altered them.

– Did you always like books?

– As I was growing up, my interest in books changed as well. I enjoyed very much biographies of famous actors and actresses, painters, sculptors, writers, poets, composers, singers, and other artists. I think it began to germinate in my mind at that time to become famous, to excel.

– In what and how did you want to excel and become famous?

– Perhaps to become an actress or a model. Or perhaps I should like to teach or lawyer? If I remember correctly, these were the thoughts that swirled under my recalcitrant tresses.

– How were your teenage years, what filled your free time when you did not have to study?

– Fortunately, studying was never a problem for me. I was always an excellent student. I easily and quickly finished my homework even before having lunch. I could barely wait to be done with my duties preparing for the next day. My parents expected me to be the best, and that was also my expectation. Trying to be perfect is a difficult task, sometimes impossible as well. I have learned that since. Sometimes I would throw down my school bag, and grabbing my favorite novel, ran through the woods and meadows up to the vineyard to my secret flowery spots.

I knew when and where I would find the snowdrops, violets, lilies of the valley, and cyclamen. I settled onto the aromatic ground and admired the clouds. I daydreamed and read, read, and read. My imagination never rested. I was the lead dancer of the school dance troup. I recited poems or sang solo at celebrations and events. In my free time I painted and sketched. I won prizes in school exhibits. My drawing teacher was the well-known painter, Zoltan Lichtenvaller. I tutored my classmates. Last year, when I visited home again, one of them still mentioned with gratitude that I saved her from flunking the class. I spent most of my time at home. The bond with my parents and my brother Sandor is very strong to this day. My Mom and I sewed and altered dresses. I could stay at school dances only until 9 pm. I loved to dance with my Dad.Often my admirers asked my Mom for a dance. I was very proud of my parents. It was most important for me to be worthy of their love and accolades.

– When did you first thought about becoming a model?

– That is a good question, but my answer is: never! I did not have enough self-confidence to pursue my dreams, even though there were many who encouraged me and I felt that I would be well-suited for the modeling profession. I always liked the fashion world, and had the longing for the runway, the stage, and photo sessions. In the meantime, my life took a totally different direction.

I was a corresponding student at the Kindergarten Teacher Academy of Sopron, and worked as a kindergarten teacher in Nagykanizsa. I lived in a beautiful, new, and wonderfully furnished apartment. I married early. I thought that was it, there can be nothing else in my future. This will be my life, which will pass like others. But I felt like I was being choked. It is the grimace of fate that it was my husband that rescued me by wanting to move to Budapest at any price.

He was a teacher, but wanted to be a painter. Imagine, he responded in my name to an ad for applying to the Budapest School of Modeling. I received a notice where and when to show up for the selection. My first reaction was to cry, due to my surprise, bewilderment, fear, joy, hope…, I don’t know anymore. Then one early morning I boarded a train, wearing blue jeans, a white blouse, with lipstick, eyeliner, mascara in my bag. When I got to Budapest, I bought a new bikini, and asked how to get to Gorkij alley. You can imagine, I almost fainted when I saw all those beautiful girls. What am I doing here? There may have been some 200 of us, but they only accepted 20 girls, and I was one of them. I could hardly believe it!

– Was there someone in the profession that helped you and perhaps you looked up to as a role model?

– I only knew my classmates. I have to pick one though, who was already a famous model. She only attended the school for the exams as a formality. Her name was Piroska Lantos. She was a beautiful woman, she moved exceptionally and wonderfully on the runway. Everyone looked up to her. After the final exam she approached me and offered to take me to the train station along with the famous photographer (still good friend) Gabor Modos. This gesture and the few words of encouragement for the future on the way to the station made me feel much better.

Then at one of my first more significant exhibitions the lady in charge, – if possible, don’t name her, although she would deserve it, – imagine, she yelled at me that my lipstick was not red enough. Piroska jumped up and put her lipstick on my lips, then pulled back my hair roguishly saying: „ Her problem is that you have too good a figure. I saw in her eyes as she measured you!” I wish I had the opportunity to tell Piroska what it meant to me, the fledgling model, for her, the star, to believe that I would become one some day, but fate prevented me from doing so. She is no longer among us.

– How do you handle coarseness? How did you relate to fledgling models?

– Yes, it is very difficult. Coarseness left a deep impression in me, it hurt a great deal. On the other hand, goodness is reassuring. When I became an accomplished well-known model, I always helped the beginners. I explained the choreography, if we went out on stage together I loaned them my accessories: earrings, belt, etc. I was never jealous. I figured, everyone that I work with should be good, because the whole show benefits from that, this is teamwork, and I shouldn’t look good because the others are bad. I am very proud of the fact that my colleagues and students liked me and love me even today. As I recall, we always laughed behind the scenes (even on stage) and, of course, during our travels.

– Who were your teachers, helpers, manager? When and what kind of success did you reach when you were active as a model?

– In modeling school we learned acting, how to move on stage, jazz-ballet, make-up, etc. My favorite teacher was Bela Szirmai, who taught choreography. Later, I had many opportunities to work with him in shows. From him I got encouragement and self-confidence. He was a real gentleman, very talented, blessed with humaneness. I liked him very much.

Helper, manager? – These did not exist when I started. The modeling school did not help us with how to move forward, how to build our career, how to navigate in the world of fashion. We had no portfolio, photo album; there were no agencies to sign up with. We were on our own. A lot depended on chance and luck. One’s success depended on perseverance, good work, ability, accuracy. There was a group of 20-30 models, who were appearing regularly everywhere. It was difficult for a ”newbie” to worm her way into this group. I began in the May 1 Clothing Factory as an in-house model, then I appeared in their shows outside of the factory. There is where photographers saw me, who asked for or traced down my telephone number. Soon I had photo sessions or fashion shows every day.

I can thank my participation in a show at the Hotel Intercontinental, which was organized by Erzsike Laknerfi of the ”Hungarian Advertiser” (MAHIR) for the Felina underwear and bathing suit manufacturing firm, for truly starting my career. This show was attended by practically all of the fashion profession. After the show, photographers and representatives of other firms have asked for my telephone number. There was no stopping from here. At my greatest pleasure…

– What successes did you reach after this?

– ”No, no, and no! No, I have no regrets!” – according to Edith Piaf, and me as well. It is not worth it to ruminate over the past, what happened cannot be changed, and I don’t know if I would be happier now if I had stayed home. Naturally, the absence of my loved ones is at times almost unbearable, but there is the telephone, the computer, and the airplane. I make sensible and short-range plans. Of course, I still indulge in dreams. I can’t help it, I was born that way, with this sentimental, sensitive, romantic mentality.

– What do you presently like to do, altogether what are you working on these days?

– Another modeling class started recently at „Ilona Studio”. The next ones will start in Gainesville and the Miami area. I would like to add two other classes also. One for children, which I wouldn’t call modeling class, rather to develop personality and self-confidence. To help them get over the awkwardness of childhood, the age of „I can’t find my place anywhere” period. My certificate and three years of work as a kindergarten teacher will help me in this class.

The other one is the „Transforming” class, which could help everyone without regard to occupation, age, appearance. I would like to quote here what I posted on Facebook about this: There are no ugly women, only some that don’t know how to or don’t want to bring out the beauty that they were born with, or perhaps they cannot believe that the beauty is there. This is what I help them with, what I teach. I see in everyone something worthwhile. I have a good eye for this. This is the starting point, that is my belief! The educating, teaching, all of my „beauty trick knowledge” comes only after this. The odius, wicked people, men and women, are primarily dissatisfied with themselves. They need to be helped, encouraged, not be angry with. One must do a few things to be attractive to ourselves and others. In the school, I primarily emphasize external beautification, but I never forget that everyone got something else from their fate, inside and outside. I don’t want to manufacture fashion models. I want to develop the idividuality. It would be terrible if everyone would be the same or very similar. That is why I strive for beauty in everything. That is why I like to teach, to help, so that everyone may be the best version of themselves, and may see, find, develop the beauty in themselves, in their everyday life.”

– Only those that envy you do not recognize that you are a very beautiful and exacting woman. Does it bother you or have you gotten used to it that people turn around to look at you?

– Everyone notices if one takes care of herself. Especially the envious ones. I can’t imagine stepping outside even to the mailbox with worn nailpolish, unkempt hair, torn clothing. No matter where I am, I only feel good when I am neat and clean. Even at home, even if I am alone. It is no coincidence that I chose this occupation. I like beauty on me. I like to see it and notice it on others around me. How we view and feel about ourselves, whether we are satisfied with ourselves radiates, the sparkle in our eyes, our facial expressions, our movements, the tone of our voice, our entire being is different.Then we receive the positive reaction from the world around us. Of course I don’t mind if people turn to look at me. I can only thank them for that!

– What is your favorite pastime, when you are not busy with models, business, or teaching?

– I like to multitask. I have an anxious disposition. I feel I don’t have enough time for everything that I am interested in. Fashion is not the only thing I am interested in. I am interested in everything, and there is not enough time. One needs more, much more to satisfaction, to fulfill and transfer all that is inside trying to break out. And this awful vanity, urge to prove! Often one doesn’t understand oneself either. Why? For whom? But I already know: for survival, for rebirth.

To bypass life’s painful, difficult traps. To generate strength to continue. Well, back to the foundation of reality…a little. Several years ago I earned a business and real estate broker license. At first only to prove to myself and my new American friends that I am not only a „slender waist and empty head”. I can’t resist, I have to tell you that I finished the class with the highest grade (98%); the only foreigner, Hungarian. I swear to God! Well, isn’t vanity a positive trait? You develop yourself inside and outside, strive to bring out the most, the best in you. As a second job, I am also working in this field. Naturally I follow all fashion news, on TV and in magazines. I am creative, so I am always fiddling with something. I sew frills on clothing, trim it, lengthen it. I am always planning. I don’t know if I have any clothes that I haven’t yet altered. I repaint furniture, mirror frames in the house. I sew and embroider decorative pillows, blankets, table cloths, or sew a gold trim even on the edge of my sheets. Sometimes I paint pictures. I regularly cook, photograph the cooking process and the finished food, which I serve on a candle-lit table. My camera is always handy, wherever I go I take it with me. Often I take a photo from the car if I see something captivating. The sunlight filtered through palm fronds, squirrels in the yard, a mural, or just colors, whatever. I especially adore the sunset, the splendid reddish sky. I photograph everything I do, wherever I go.

Then I email lots of pictures home to my loved ones. That way it like we are together always. We trick the distance. I like old movies, and of course good new ones also. I never get bored with what or who is my favorite! – while Ilona laughs heartily.

– What presence do sports have in your life?

– Sport is an integral part of my life, I am a member in a fitness center. The gym is extremely well equipped, open nonstop, and can be used an unlimited amount of time. The staff is very professional, good comraderie, attitude, and one can even keep themselves in shape. I feel remorse if I don’t go for a few days. I know how important it is to move, not only for physical but also for mental health.

– What do you feel you would like to accomplish in the near future, do you have any solid ideas, goals?

– My newest dream, plan is to write a book. Simply I got this feeling sweeping away all, that I must share all those things that I lived through, experienced, learned in the course of my modeling career and everyday life. The book, which I have already started, will thus be an autobiography, in which I will further expand the Beauty theme, how we can achieve beauty in everything, not only on our face, body, but in our everyday surroundings. I reveal my secrets in the book, illustrated with lots of pictures. I don’t mind allowing people into my private life, because I believe that they will more readily accept my advice, ideas, help, if they know me more closely. They will realize that I was confronted in my life with similar problems, failures, difficulties, challenges, and still remained inside and outside the person that others and most importantly I expected from myself.

By Istvan Tamas