After a decade at the top of the supermodel pack, Macpherson makes her film debut in Sirens, an art-house movie by director John Duigan that will open in Philadelphia on Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse. She portrays one of three art models who seduce a sexually repressed clergyman and his equally repressed wife.
In the film, Macpherson and her two sister sirens appear nude several times - adding even more luster to her shining career as the sex symbol most men would most like to be stranded with during a blizzard.
On this snowy Manhattan day, Macpherson has allotted 45 minutes for an interview in her midtown condo. She answers her buzzer with a cheery ''Hello." The elevator opens right into her apartment, where she waits with a big smile.
Surprisingly, in the flesh, Macpherson doesn't immediately inspire lustful thoughts. She is tall - 6 feet - dressed today in a long, pink T-shirt and gray leggings, her blond hair hanging loose and parted in the middle, hippie style. Her body is more athletic than voluptuous - at least it is now that she has shed the 20 pounds she put on for the movie role.
The Australian-born Macpherson, at 29, comes across as an astute businesswoman and a candid free spirit who believes in her own form of feminism. She says she has been a full and willing partner in the marketing of her image, from her many appearances in Sports Illustrated's highly hyped annual swimsuit issue to her own line of lingerie. Playing into male fantasies, she says, has allowed her to achieve success and control her own destiny.
"I am an independent woman. I run a business, and it just happens that the business is me," she says. "I don't think anyone sees me as a total sex symbol."
Macpherson says she never had a "burning passion" to act, and even now is not so sure it's for her.
"This is my first movie (because) up until now . . . it never really occurred to me, and I've been so busy with my other projects that this was the first time that I could afford to take 3 1/2 months off - both financially and emotionally," she says.
Her manager sent her the script for Sirens in August 1992, and she didn't even get around to reading it until months later. In January of 1993 her manager told her that director Duigan wanted to talk to her. "I was so embarrassed that I hadn't even read it. I forced myself to read it and I breezed through it," she says.
The movie is set on the estate of the Australian artist Norman Lindsay, who shocked the Catholic Church in the 1930s by mixing nudity with religious themes. The clergyman and his wife visit Lindsay to persuade him to withdraw a painting considered sacrilegious from an international art exhibit.
Macpherson grew up in Sydney, not far from Lindsay's estate, and says it was her admiration for the artist, who died in 1969 at age 90, that drew her to the film. She quickly did a screen test, and two days later was told she won the part and was to report in three weeks to the location in the Blue Mountains of Australia.
That was the best part, going home for three months, she said. She worked 16-hour days, visited her family (she has a brother, a sister and a stepsister) and studied the craft of acting.
"The main difference between modeling and acting is that in modeling your relationship is with the camera and bringing this two-dimensional image to life. In acting, your relationship is with the other actors and it requires you to be more fluid. . . . "
Macpherson went on a high-protein diet to make herself more voluptuous for the film. Her performance appears effortless and natural and has received good reviews. But she can't appraise her success as Sheela, the most brazen of the three sirens.
"I can't distance myself enough to judge my performance. And I know myself so well, I can only see the bad side of it," she says.
Near the end of the film, Macpherson went on a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet to slim down in time to film a commercial.
The film arrives just weeks after Macpherson graced her fourth cover for Sports Illustrated. This time she shares the space with Rachel Hunter and Kathy Ireland, all in black bikinis.
Each time the swimsuit issue is published, there's an outcry from feminists. Macpherson thinks that they should concern themselves instead with more serious problems facing women.
"I think you can't take this too seriously. Look at it. It's a sports magazine with 52 issues a year and only one is a swimsuit issue. I think it's done very tastefully. I don't know what people see wrong with it," she says, her long, long limbs tucked under her body on a sofa in her earth-tone living room.
"I think that the female and the male bodies have been idolized in art since the beginning of time. Men and women aren't the same, and we should accept that fact, which doesn't mean that we aren't equal."
She also dismisses charges that Sports Illustrated is exploiting women. ''S.I. liberated me. I gained as much as they did. I don't have to ask anyone to support me."
Macpherson was 17 when she was discovered by a New York modeling scout while on a skiing vacation in New York. Almost overnight she became a sensation, her future assured when famed fashion photographer Gilles Bensimon shot her nude for the cover of French Elle.
She married Bensimon when she was 21 and decided not to pursue a career as a print model for magazines because of the long hours and low pay. Instead, she worked the more lucrative sex-symbol advertising market. She appeared in steamy layouts for Sports Illustrated in 1984 and 1985, but it wasn't until the following year that she knocked Paulina Porizkova off the cover. Her cover debut in a swimsuit came shortly after Cosmopolitan magazine named her one of the six most beautiful women in the world.
She did three consecutive Sport Illustrated covers and a ton of lucrative advertising assignments, becoming one of the highest paid and most recognizable models in the industry.
"In the early '80s it was the first time that people began to put a name with a model's face. Sports Illustrated was very important in establishing supermodels, and it has been very important to me," she says.
She made a workout video before the business exploded. And she released her first calender three years ago, "when no one was doing one." Her calendar has been hugely successful ever since, slaughtering all comely challengers, including Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford and Nicole Smith. Her Elle Macpherson Intimate Apparel lingerie line, sold only in Australia, is in its fifth year in the top-selling ranks of the innerwear market.
As she was making her way to the top, her marriage with Bensimon ended. She dated a series of internationally known men including race-car driver Ayrton Senna.
Her new love is Tim Jefferies, 31, a London art dealer who used to be married to soft-porn star Koo Stark and is heir to the multimillion-dollar fortune his grandfather made in green stamps.
Macpherson looks around the room, with its art waiting to be hung, and comments that only now can she finally get down to the business of decorating the condo she purchased after living in a New York apartment for 12 years. "I have a decorator, but I won't let her do anything unless I am around - and I've never been around," she says.
The elevator arrives, depositing Jefferies. He's as tall as she is, with light blue eyes, dark, curly hair and an athletic build.
They kiss, like a contented married couple. Macpherson's good-bye is as cheery as her greeting. One's last glimpse of her, before the elevator closes, is of her snuggling close to Jefferies, arguably one of the luckiest men in the world.