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China Machado, 86

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A breaker of barriers -- first on race, then on age -- China Machado was unafraid of challenging fashion’s definition of beauty.

"Beauty opens doors, but you'd better be ready to dance right through."

- China Machado

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One of the first non-white women to break into high fashion, Machado collaborated often with the photographer Richard Avedon (pictured right, in 1978), who called her his muse. Avedon, a key player at Harper’s Bazaar, threatened to leave the magazine in the late 1950s when its publisher refused to print the photographer’s shots of Machado because she was not white. He “sort of blackmailed them into putting these pictures into the magazine,” Machado said.

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Born on Christmas Day in 1929, Machado, pictured here in 1996, grew up in Shanghai, and saw white women like Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth celebrated for their beauty. “I didn't look like them, so I thought: I can't be good-looking, right?” Machado, who was of Chinese and Portuguese descent, said in a video for Cole Haan. Avedon, in sharp contrast, famously said that she was “probably the most beautiful woman in the world.”

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Originally named Noelie, Machado, shown here in 2010, adopted the name “China,” pronounced “chee-na,” based on the racial taunts she received while living in Buenos Aires and Lima once her family fled China after World War II. In her early 20s, heartbroken after her bullfighter lover left her for Ava Gardner, Machado moved to Paris, where she became the highest-paid freelance runway model in Europe.

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Machado, photographed in 2012 alongside fellow models Carol Alt (left) and Beverly Johnson (right), worked well into her later years. At age 81, with a fresh contract at IMG, she was “probably the world’s oldest signed model,” CNN reported. During her lifetime, she also worked as a fashion designer, gallerist and editor.

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