Valerie Ramsey has led an unusual life: She was a young mother of six, didn't build a career until her 50s and became a silver-haired fashion model at 63.
But Ramsey, now 68, never considered that other women would be interested in what she calls her "topsy-turvy" story until her local paper in Monterey, Calif., wrote a profile about her that was picked up by newspapers nationwide.
"The more papers it showed up in, the more e-mails I was getting from women everywhere," Ramsey said in a phone interview. The e-mail writers would say, "Your story is so inspiring to me. I'm older now and the children are gone. I've been afraid to venture out and try to do new things, and you've given me the courage."
So Ramsey and her daughter, co-author Heather Hummel, decided to compile Ramsey's philosophies (and those of the experts she works with) into a book. The result is Gracefully: Looking and Being Your Best at Any Age.
Ramsey doesn't claim to be an authority on aging. She said she just wanted to share the tools that have worked for her.
Her advice is sensible, and her story interesting, though the book starts slowly. Her capsule resume — attended boarding school with actor Ali McGraw, public relations director for the exclusive Pebble Beach Resorts, fashion model — don't allow most women to relate.
What is compelling is that Ramsey came to modeling late, that during the first days of her new job at Pebble Beach she learned she had uterine cancer and a heart condition, and that the reason she was in boarding school was her parents' early divorce and her mother's demanding career.
But these compelling details are scattered throughout the book, so readers are left on their own to piece her story together.
Yet in her interview, Ramsey said the book was structured that way on purpose: "I didn't want it to be about me," she said. "Who am I? I'm Little Miss Nobody."
The best parts of Gracefully focus on the importance of learning new skills, making big life changes when the time is right, and seizing unexpected opportunity.
"It's simply not true," she writes, "that we have to look at retirement as the end — we should continue to explore life, challenge ourselves, and look around the corner to see what's next."
Ramsey clears her mind by keeping a daily journal, as she has done most of her life. She is a strong believer in taking time for herself, forgiving her mistakes, and keeping a positive attitude when faced with unexpected challenges.
The week of her first big photo shoot at Pebble Beach, she broke her foot and learned of her cancer and cardiomyopathy, but she kept working — and laughing. "Fortunately," she writes, "there was a happy ending."
Ramsey advocates a "wellness" approach to health, and that includes sexuality. When she started working again she found she could stay vital with good nutrition, regular exercise and a solid night's sleep, which she acknowledges can be hard to come by as one ages.
When her eyes pop open in the middle of the night and her mind starts racing, she said, a little meditation helps her relax and get back to sleep. "If all else fails," she said, "there's healthy oatmeal cookies, milk and 15-20 minutes of (Jay) Leno."
Staying youthful on the outside is trickier. Ramsey is honest that she's had some help in that department, including Botox for frown lines and various laser treatments for her skin. Not everyone, of course, can afford such luxuries — or would want them.
Ramsey's fashion and makeup tips actually mask her real message, which unfolds as the book progresses.
"The path that I happened to stumble into happened to be modeling," Ramsey said, "but it could be absolutely anything. It's about following your passion."
Sharon Ginn can be reached at email@example.com.