Standing five feet seven inches with an enviable 21-inch waistline, Tetta Agustin-Baverey was deemed too petite for Rome’s modelling standards. Told by Emilio Pucci to try and find fortune in Paris, the dusky Filipina beauty flew out as soon as she could, tumbling headway into a world that would change her life forever. “Failure was not an option,” says Tetta of her rocky start. “The prospect of having to come back to the Philippines empty-handed was embarrassing.”
Rebel with a Cause
Born into a conservative family of humble background, Tetta and her nine siblings were urged to prioritise their schooling. Her parents insisted that everyone study to become either doctors or lawyers, but Tetta knew that such a career was not for her. Though enrolled in a business course at the University of the East, academics became the least of her concerns. Instead, she busied herself with extracurricular activities such as her work with the student council, choir, and cultural club.
Fresh out of university, she applied to be a flight stewardess with Air Manila. It was not long after that Tetta realised she was not cut out for the service industry.
Keen on becoming a model, she called up designer Dante Ramirez and partnered with him for a fashion show called Paparazzi, which she produced and walked in. She later found work with both Pierre Cardin and Renato Balestra, with the latter asking her to model for his show at the Hyatt Regency. Balestra later extended an invitation to Italy, a chance that Tetta was very much willing to take.
“And off I went with a suitcase full of lies and excuses, the allowances of my siblings plus what savings I had the only money filling my pockets,” she recalls. “I wasn’t open to going into detail on what I was about to get into with family—my aunts, especially—who felt that modelling was akin to selling one’s body.”
Top of Her Game
In Rome, Tetta was met by disappointment. Her petite frame did not fit into Balestra’s pieces, which were tailored to fit the statuesque Italian models. Acting on Pucci’s suggestion, she flew to Paris and went to the Catherine Harley Modelling Agency, the only one of its kind at the time. She attended castings with Madame Grès and Nina Ricci, but they also said she was too small. “The rejection stung, but it was more because I couldn’t book a job than me being too petite,” Tetta recalls. “I came to Europe to model, and I refused to work if it wasn’t going to be a job that I liked.”
Fortune came in the form of M Hubert de Givenchy. As soon as the designer laid eyes on Tetta, he asked her to sign a contract on the spot, bumping off a Vietnamese model to accommodate Tetta. This move cemented her place as one of Givenchy’s house models and her debut on the international stage.
Life became one big adventure for the feisty Filipina. She found herself on guest lists for film festivals, yacht parties, extravagant banquets, and even private audiences with notable figures in society. She was frequently thrust under the spotlight, walking for and developing friendships with prominent women such as horticulturist and art patron Bunny Mellon, socialite and philanthropist Barbara Hutton, Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, and then First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Together with the top models of her time, Tetta commandeered Paris’ runways.
It was later on in her career—when she was working with Yves St Laurent—that she found herself growing weary of the modelling world. “At that point in my life, I was looking to try other things,” she admits. “I was developing an interest in business and I had acquired a terrific network that would prove to be very helpful should I decide to change my tune.”
Tetta began to make frequent trips to London, where the property market caught her interest. Value then was low, but the model felt it was a worthwhile investment. Busy as she was, she would be working on buying, renovating, and selling properties whenever she had spare time off work.
Juggling two demanding jobs was no easy feat. Tetta was required to be in Paris during the weekdays to model, which left her with very little time to manage her properties. “My solution was to ask a friend (the Vietnamese model that Givenchy had passed over for Tetta) to take my place for a day, which would give me time to attend meetings in London,” she says. “But after two years, I found myself exhausted.” In 1982, Givenchy’s favourite Asian model walked the runway for the last time.
Now in her sixties, Tetta keeps herself busy with her real-estate business, travelling (she has homes in several European countries), rally racing, and spending time with her husband, French businessman Christian Baverey, and, when schedules permit, her only daughter Tosca, a lawyer based in Brazil. Ever enterprising, she has several projects in the pipeline; a list that includes the construction of an event hall in Tanauan, Batangas and a resort in San Vicente, Palawan.
“What’s tough about this kind of life is that people can be very envious of you to the point that they can attempt to smear your character,” says Tetta of being in the limelight. “Even after modelling, I was dismissed as being ‘too young’ or ‘too beautiful’ to go into business, so I had to defend myself. Thankfully, I had friends who looked after me and helped me secure jobs.”
She credits her success to her ability to focus and her determination to stay true to herself. “Aspiring models should embrace the same philosophy—they must be natural, they must be themselves. I notice that some try too hard,” she reflects. “That was never the case with me. Sometimes, I would even forget I was a top model. I’m still the little girl happily playing tumbang preso on the streets.”
Photography: Mandy Navasero; Make-up: MJ Bornales of MAC Cosmetics; Hair: Patty Inojales