By  on February 1, 2002

LONDON -- The celebrities were first-string, the portraits were literally larger than life and the champagne flowed like the Thames. Tuesday night's cocktail party to kick off Mario Testino's "Portraits" exhibition drew a crowd so glittering, you'd think the Royals had done the inviting.

More than 500 Testino models and fans crowded into the National Portrait Gallery to pay tribute to the photographer at the party hosted by British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman. Among them were Madonna, with Guy Ritchie and daughter Lourdes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Salman Rushdie, Jemima Khan, Lady Helen Taylor, Kate Moss, Tom Ford, U.S. Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Elle Macpherson, Alexander McQueen, Julien Macdonald, Manolo Blahnik, Sir Paul Smith, Matthew Williamson, Nicole Farhi, Stella McCartney and Philip Treacy.

So what is it about Mario that everyone loves so much? "He makes you feel so relaxed in front of the camera," said Paltrow. "He sort of opens his mouth like this," she said, tilting her head and opening wide, "and says 'You look increeeeedible, Gwyneth.' And that just does it for me." Rushdie put it another way: "He treats you like a supermodel. 'Come on, baby, give it to me,' he says. It's so ridiculous that it works."

Ford said Testino can make the stiffest person relax in front of the lens. "He's just normal, friendly and nice, and he just has a way of breaking you down."

Treacy said: "He makes you laugh, and that's the most important thing. Isn't it?"

The exhibition, sponsored by Burberry and Dom Perignon, opens today and runs through June 4. It features more than 120 jumbo-sized, color and black-and-white portraits of figures from fashion, music, Hollywood -- and, of course, London. Kate Moss has her own room, Princess Diana and Madonna share a room and members of the Royal Family -- including Prince Charles -- share wall space with Gwyneth Paltrow, whom Testino refers to as an American royal. These images will also appear in a star-studded book 'Mario Testino Portraits', which Bulfinch Press is publishing in April.Patrick Kinmonth curated and designed the exhibition, and his inside jokes were not lost on the guests: Almost everyone noted that he put Charles and Diana back-to-back.

But Testino, who was feted with a week's worth of parties, dinners, television and radio specials, won't be resting on his laurels anytime soon. "I work in an industry where you're only as good as your last job," he said. "Just because I'm at the National Portrait Gallery doesn't mean I can relax." Not that there's any risk of that happening. "My work is my life; I'm at it from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. I'll be a photographer until the day I die. Just watch me. I'll be desperately trying to be young and trendy even when I'm 80 years old."

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