English supermodel and musician Karen Elson has spent more than two decades in the fashion limelight, walking the runway for Alexander McQueen, Valentino, Chanel and Gucci and appearing on the cover of Vogue Italia on her 18th birthday. The 43-year-old mother of two teenagers [she co-parents with ex-husband Jack White of the White Stripes] now lives in Nashville and is a fierce advocate for models’ rights. She’s recorded a new album, Green, and found love again.
What did you do as a teenage model that you wouldn’t do now?
I was 15 when I started modelling. I grew up in working-class northern England and the future didn’t look particularly bright and sparkly, so I jumped at the opportunity to become a model and travel the world. At that age, I wasn’t able to stand up for myself and say no to shoots that made me feel uncomfortable. I thought that if I did, I would be sent back home.
When Kate Moss did her famous shoot for The Face, she was 15 and topless. It’s a beautiful image, but I can’t help but think that she’s a teenage girl. I had similar experiences. During one of my first shoots in Paris, aged 16, I was naked. I have a 16-year-old daughter now and I wouldn’t allow her to do that, yet I was in that situation. At the time I wanted to be accepted and wanted people to like me. I wanted to succeed. As a 43-year-old woman, I want to see a mood board beforehand and have a good idea of the clothes they want me to wear. Part of being a good model back then was about being spontaneous. As I got older, I got more protective of myself.
Why is model advocacy such a passion project for you? There is no union or overseeing committee in the modelling world, except for the work of the Model Alliance in New York. Models have a right to feel safe and secure. I am very passionate about these things.
I did a shoot once in a makeshift swimming pool that looked green, so they poured bleach in it. One by one, all of the models ended up in the hospital because we had chemical burns. I walked off set and took myself to emergency. Later that evening, my agent at the time called me to tell me that we had to send flowers and write a letter to apologise. My thing is to not overly criticise the industry, but to say let’s do something about it. Let’s create scaffolding and a framework so that when talent goes on set we know what we’re getting paid, we know we are safe and valued.
Has modelling learnt from the #MeToo movement? Not everybody is a predator or out to rip you off, but the mentality in the fashion industry hasn’t changed a lot over the years. One thing I have done privately is have one-to-one discussions with people in the business, and in light of the #MeToo movement, to speak up. From fashion editors saying unkind things about my body to photographers standing next to me while I am naked, I tell them directly when I have a problem with that. Talent mixed with power, fame and infamy can create a troubling, toxic mix.
You have a new love in your life. How is that working out? I have kept a lot of my post-divorce relationships on the down low, just because being a mother was my priority. For a while, any relationship I had was outside of Nashville – I kept things at an arm’s length. I met Adam Ross through my kids, as our children know one another. He’s a brilliant novelist and editor-in-chief of American literary journal The Sewanee Review. I was ready to let him in and wanted a grounded relationship in Nashville. He gave me Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore to read in Australia for my Semi Permanent festival appearance [in May]. I’m never at a loss for a good book dating a novelist. He’s a solid, smart and steadfast individual.
Any new fashion labels you love? I used to be massively into vintage and scoured the vintage stores, but now nothing stresses me out more! I really like Another Tomorrow. There is a QR code on each label that shows you where the garment comes from and every step of the process [of making it]. They create modern, utilitarian outfits.
What’s a career pinch-me moment? Working with the late Alexander McQueen on his Spring 2004 runway show, based on the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They. That was a real pinch-me moment.
Is there a recent loss in the world of fashion you can’t get over? Definitely [former Lanvin creative director] Alber Elbaz. He was someone I cared about, a real friend. It affected me because I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.
What life advice do you live by? It’s very simple – whenever I have a struggle or go through difficult times, I always remind myself that this too shall pass. I am a big believer of putting one foot in front of the other and remembering that tomorrow is a new day. I have always believed in myself and in my industry, even though I have had people say “You’re over” or “This biz is done for you” or tell me they don’t believe in my music. The faith I have in my dreams catapults me and it’s not easy, but those who have faith find a way.
Describe your personal style. In Nashville, I am very casual in jeans and T-shirts. But then I jump on a plane to go somewhere fabulous and need multiple suitcases filled with dresses and can’t decide what to pack. As I get older, the less I care about trends. If it looks good and feels good, I am down with it.
When do you most feel your age? When I look at TikTok videos of cute animals and my kids tell me to turn it down because I’m embarrassing them.
If you could do a duet with anyone, who would you choose? Stevie Nicks or Cher. I got to meet Cher at the Met Gala. She commented on a crazy Dolce & Gabbana red and gold ornate dress I was wearing – she grabbed me to say, “I love your dress.” I felt like I had been anointed.
What appealed to you about coming to Sydney to speak at Semi Permanent? I had released my memoir, The Red Flame in 2020 and I loved that an ideas festival like Semi Permanent had reached out to me and wanted me to share insights into my creative process. I am leaning more into those spaces on top of what I do, because I want to use my voice in a meaningful and impactful way.
Hair, Daren Borthwick using Oribe; Make-up, Linda Jefferyes using Charlotte Tilbury; Styling assistant, Emerson Conrad.
Karen Elson’s album Green is out now.
To read more from Sunday Life magazine, click here.
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