As she adds to her royal repertoire with a turn as Russian empress Catherine the Great, Dame Helen Mirren talks to Stylist about history’s unfair treatment of powerful women.
Helen Mirren knows a thing or two about power. Her naturally majestic manner has lent itself to portraying numerous royals – from Queen Charlotte to Elizabeth II – and now she’s turned her hand to a woman often described as the most powerful female monarch in history: Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great.
The four-part Sky series (named after the Russian leader) tells her remarkable story: a German immigrant who arrived in Russia at 15 and went on to rule for 34 years, her reputation was tarnished by sordid rumours – being a sexually empowered woman with a string of lovers didn’t fly in the 18th century, empress or not.
“Catherine is an example of how, if a woman has the capability and energy, she can do absolutely anything,” says Mirren. “But she was maligned by history in the most monstrous way. Powerful women do tend to be wiped out of the history books.”
In the spirit of Catherine, Stylist asked Mirren which other influential women, past and present, deserve our admiration…
“She was similar to Catherine in that she was incredibly loyal and did everything she could for her country, even if it meant having to use her femininity. She wasn’t particularly beautiful but very clever and brave. And again, history just made her into this sex kitten. It’s a terribly misogynistic view.”
“She grew up in violent and difficult times and walked into her role with huge courage. Like Catherine, she was incredibly intelligent, spoke many languages and was very erudite. She also loved a party and loved men – obviously she had to be much more circumspect, but she was absolutely not about to share her power with any man.”
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
“A woman with huge abilities and an extraordinary history. She’s been right up there in the corridors of power from quite a young age. Very interesting, shrewd and charming, as I understand. And a great sense of humour that she couldn’t always show – maybe that was her tragedy, that she could never quite be her natural self.”
“The Queen is different because power fell upon her; I’m sure she would’ve wriggled out of it if she could, and just have been a happy country woman. But I think she knew she had the character to be able to deal with it. She knew what it meant and was committed to it, which is very admirable.”
Photography: Sky Atlantic, Getty