WHILE FLIPPING THROUGH A BOOK OF fashion photography last year, Lisa Taylor was overwhelmed by the young, flawless bodies. "All these raving beauties," she thought. "It's unfair that women feel bad about themselves because they're not this picture-perfect thing."

First Taylor, now 40, got mad, then she got even. In the 1970s she had been a top model herself, with about 25 magazine covers to her credit, as well as print ads for Clairol and Calvin Klein. After running into Klein at a New York City movie premiere last year, she told him what was on her mind. "The people who buy your clothes," she said, "aren't 20 years old, like your models."

Klein agreed. "Women do get more beautiful, and we hardly ever show that side," admits the designer, who promptly made the tanned, trim and still beautiful Taylor the focus of his splashy, new spring campaign. Since the ads debuted in March, Taylor has been making like George Foreman—minus, of course, the gargantuan appetite. She is mulling over offers that have poured in from manufacturers, retailers and designers, though she has not yet decided which to accept.

Curiously, modeling didn't originally appeal to Taylor, the Oyster Bay, N.Y.-born daughter of a textile-executive father and a housewife mother. When a model friend suggested that Lisa give it a whirl in the early '70s, Taylor says that her first reaction was, "Oh, God, I don't want to model!" But, at age 20, she needed money. Her father had cut off her allowance because she had dropped out of Boston's Pine Manor Junior College. So Taylor walked into Eileen Ford's office and signed on. "It was time for the all-American look—healthy, clean-scrubbed," says Taylor, who defined the new naturalism of the era that made stars out of fresh faces like Cheryl Tiegs. Taylor first modeled for Klein in 1975 and worked for him almost exclusively for the next five years—"until Brooke Shields came along," Taylor says. "Then it was her turn."

But even before Brooke came between her and Calvin, Taylor was ready for a change. When she turned 30, she decided to quit. "Before it was too late and they didn't want me anymore," she says. "I really wanted to take a look at life from another side." In 1980, Taylor fled New York City and moved to West Hollywood, where she lived off her savings and began volunteering at Los Angeles-area animal shelters. She also works now with a group that finds temporary homes for abused children and crack babies. "I've spent the last 10 years doing some real soul-searching," says Taylor. "And I've realized that there's a lot more to life than how you look."

In fact after spending her years in New York City partying at Studio 54 with Klein and his crowd, and getting involved with celebs such as tennis star John McEnroe and actor Tommy Lee Jones, Taylor found true love unexpectedly on a trip to Hawaii in 1989. Through a friend, she met investment banker Ellis Jones, now 38, and, she says, "it was just about love at first sight." They were married that November. The couple live in a single-story Beverly Hills house and hope to have a baby eventually. For now, though, Taylor is concentrating on breaking the age barrier in modeling: "I have the feeling I'll look back and say, 'This is what started something great.' "

The proof is in the posing. "Lisa communicates a self-confidence that's very real," says Klein. Taylor agrees. "I feel better than I did when I was 20," she says. "More secure, more stable in my life. Just stronger in almost every way." She stays trim by playing golf with her husband, plus daily stretching, exercising on the Stairmaster and sprinting with the dogs. "Nervous energy keeps the weight down," says the 5'9" Taylor, who has never owned a scale (best guess: 135 lbs.). And except for shoots, she wears little makeup. "Lines don't make you look old," she says. "How you feel about them does. Just look at Jessica Tandy's smile. You can tell she's proud of the way she looks. That comes with wisdom, and wisdom is more important than a wrinkle or two around your eyes."

ALEX TRESNIOWSKI
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Lois Armstrong.