English supermodel and musician Karen Elson has spent more than two decades in the fashion spotlight, walking the runways for Alexander McQueen, Valentino, Chanel and Gucci and appearing on the cover of Vogue Italy on his 18th birthday. The 43-year-old mother of two teenagers. [she co-parents with ex-husband Jack White of the White Stripes] she now lives in Nashville and is a fierce advocate for model rights. She has recorded a new album, Greenand found love again.
What did you do as a teen model that you wouldn’t do now?
I was 15 years old when I started modeling. I grew up in the working class of the North of England and the future didn’t look particularly bright and shiny, so I jumped at the chance to become a model and travel the world. At that age, I wasn’t able to stand up for myself and say no to shots that made me uncomfortable. I thought that if I did, they would send me back home.
When Kate Moss did her famous shoot for Faceshe was 15 years old and topless. It’s a beautiful image, but I can’t help but think she’s a teenager. I had similar experiences. During one of my first sessions in Paris, at the age of 16, she was naked. Now I have a 16-year-old daughter and she wouldn’t let her do that, but I was in that situation. At that time I wanted to be accepted and wanted by people. I wanted to be successful. As a 43-year-old woman, I want to see a mood board beforehand and get a good idea of what clothes they want me to wear. Part of being a good model back then was being spontaneous. As I got older, I became more protective of myself.
Why is Model Advocacy such an exciting project for you? There is no union or supervisory committee in the modeling world, except for the Model Alliance work in New York. Models have the right to feel safe and secure. I am very passionate about these things.
I once did a shoot in a makeshift pool that looked green, so they put bleach on it.. One by one, all the models ended up in the hospital because we had chemical burns. I left the set and took myself to the ER. Later that night, my agent at the time called me to say that we needed to send flowers and write a letter to apologize. My thing is not to criticize the industry too much, but to say that we do something about it. We create a scaffolding and a framework so that when the talent goes to the set we know what they pay us, we know that we are safe and valued.
Has modeling learned from the #MeToo movement? Not everyone is a predator or wants to rip you off, but the mindset in the fashion industry hasn’t changed much over the years. One thing I’ve done privately is have one-on-one conversations with people in the business and, in light of the #MeToo movement, to talk. From fashion editors saying nasty things about my body to photographers standing next to me while I’m naked, I tell them straight up when I have a problem with it. Talent mixed with power, fame, and infamy can create a toxic and worrying mix.
You have a new love in your life. How is that?don’t you exercise? I’ve kept a lot of my post-divorce relationships on the down-low, just because being a mom was my priority. For a while, any relationship I had was outside of Nashville: I kept things at arm’s length. I got to know Adam Ross through my children, as our children know each other. He is a brilliant novelist and editor-in-chief of the American literary magazine The Sewanee Review. He was ready to let him in and wanted a down-to-earth relationship in Nashville. He gave me Robert Hughes’ the fatal shore to read in Australia for my semi-permanent festival appearance [in May]. I never lack a good book to go out with a novelist. He is a solid, intelligent and firm person.
Any new fashion brand that you love? I used to be really into vintage and look in vintage stores, but now nothing stresses me out anymore! I really like Another Tomorrow. There is a QR code on each label that shows you where the garment comes from and each step of the process. [of making it]. They create modern and utilitarian outfits.
What is a career pinch moment? Working with the late Alexander McQueen on his spring 2004 show, based on the movie They shoot horses, don’t they?. That was a real pinch moment.
Is there a recent loss in the fashion world that you just can’t get over? Definitely [former Lanvin creative director] Alberto Elbaz. He was someone I cared about, a true friend. He affected me because I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.
What life advice do you follow? 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 in putting one foot in front of the other and remembering that tomorrow is a new day. I’ve always believed in myself and my industry, even though people have told me “You’re done” or “This business is 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 whoever has faith finds the way.
Describe your personal style. In Nashville, I’m very casual with jeans and t-shirts. But then I get on a plane to go somewhere fabulous and I need several suitcases full of dresses and I can’t decide what to pack. As I get older, I worry less about trends. If it looks good and feels good, I’m all for it.
When do you feel your age the most? When I watch TikTok videos of cute animals and my kids tell me to turn down the volume because I’m embarrassing them.
If you could do a duet with anyone, who would you choose? Stevie Nicks or Cher. I met Cher at the Met Gala. She commented on a crazy embellished red and gold Dolce & Gabbana gown she was wearing; she grabbed me to say, “I love your dress.” I felt as if he had been anointed.
What attracted you to come to Sydney to speak at Semi Permanent? I had published my memoirs, the red flame in 2020 and I was delighted that an ideas festival like Semi Permanent approached me and wanted me to share information about my creative process. I’m leaning more into those spaces as well as what I do, because I want to use my voice in a meaningful and impactful way.
Hair, Daren Borthwick with Oribe; Makeup, Linda Jefferyes with Charlotte Tilbury; Styling assistant, Emerson Conrad.