Like most supermodels, 20-year-old Karen Elson is running late. When the towering, striking fashion sensation does turn up, apologizing profusely (her family is in town), all is forgiven. Kicking back in her local joint, Tribeca's earthy Juniper, the redhead uncoils her scarf, bums an American Spirit Light from the bartender and orders a caesar salad.
"I wasn't the model type," Elson tries to convince me. "At school I got harassed so badly for being too tall, too thin, too pale - too everything that has gotten me where I am now, which is quite ironic." A modeling scout discovered a 16-year-old Elson on the street in her industrial hometown near Manchester, England, and soon she was off to London. "It was completely insane," she remembers, her ocean-blue eyes widening. "But I got off on the fact that I was looking out for myself." After little success in London, a penniless Elson relocated to Paris, where she shacked up in a matchbook-size flat near the red light district. "I didn't even have a mattress and there were cockroaches all over the place. No phone. No TV. I didn't know anyone in Paris. I was totally depressed." Soon she was sent to Tokyo, where she made some money. "I totally let my hair down in Japan. It gave me some soul to continue." Elson then tried Milan before moving to New York just before her 18th birthday. She lived first with Eileen Ford and plugged along until a fateful meeting with photographer Steven Meisel changed everything. After a Meisel spread in Italian Vogue, Elson shaved off her eyebrows and chopped her flame-red hair into a blunt cut. The startling look landed her on the cover of Italian Vogue. "It was a strong image. No one had ever seen it before and it catapulted me into this whole new realm. It was a catalyst," she explains. "That's when this whole crazy madness started. I haven't stopped working." After rooming with her best friends, models Erin O'Connor and Maggie Rizer, Elson moved on her own to a cozy place in Tribeca with a view of the Hudson River.
She admits to being "a spoiled brat who gets a lot of clothes for free," but she isn't adverse to some hearty shopping sprees. "I go to places where I know I can get a discount, because I'm a real cheap fuck." Tugging at a black-and-white-print Anna Sui shirt, she mentions she's mad for Sui's SoHo shop ("they have a lot of good jewelry"), as well as Helmut Lang, whose jeans are "the best cut in the world." A fan of the vintage treasures at Screaming Mimi's, Elson scavenges the Salvation Army for cheap finds. For "cool jumpers," she fancies Urban Outfitters. And, she gushes, "I loves a good Miu Miu." As for home goodies: "Oh my God! ABC Carpet and Home! If only I could spend all my money in there," she says ecstatically. "I can go to ABC for hours and just dream that my credit card would take everything that I want to buy." For books, Elson is a regular at Tribeca's Sufi Books, which focuses on spiritual literature. "I get these tiny Shambala books. They are little pearls of wisdom and they keep me going on my day."
Elson prefers restaurants "on the down low. I like Tea and Sympathy - hey, I'm an English girl. Every Sunday I go and have my roast and English bread, and the shepherd's pie is amazing." Bingo night on Tuesdays at the Mexican canteen Tortilla Flats is another Elson must-do. She recently got her mother drunk on margaritas there. For Italian food, she digs Da Silvano, even though it is "a little bit trendy." She becomes orgasmic when describing the papardelle ragu served next door at Bar Pitti.
For drinks on the D.L., Elson grooves on the sleazy, skid-row vibe of the Hog Pit or for mellow nights, the serene N. "I've been to your Moombas and Spy Bars," she admits. "I've done that whole circuit. My idea of a good night out is just taking as it comes." A fan of live rock music, Elson regularly checks out CBGBs, Mercury Lounge and Irving Plaza. For boogie nights, she loves Mother. "It's wicked there," she says with a twinkle in her eye. "The music rocks. I love the vampire night. All the freaks hanging out... I'm a freak as well, so I can really let down my hair."
After a late night, Elson's recovery remedy is a trip to the Millefleurs day spa in Tribeca for a manicure, body wrap and massage. For facials, she states simply: "Bliss rocks."
"Being a model ain't a hard life," the beauty admits. "Models get dissed. People are so critical of you. If I'm out at night and someone asks me what I do, sometimes I just don't answer." Elson plans on working the catwalk for a few more years but hasn't decided what she wants to do after modeling. "If I say anything, I'm in such a public place that people will always want to bring me down," she reasons. "More than anything else, I want to prove to myself that I can do something well. I don't really give a damn what anyone else thinks."
Hair by Luigi * Makeup by James Kaliardos * Prop styling by Frank Camarda * Stylist's assistant: Racquel Honor * Opening spread: Karen Elson wears a top by Benjamin Cho, bikini bottom by D&G Dolce & Gabbana, tiara by Cinderella. * Dress by Jean Paul Gaultier * Makeup: Shiseido Face Eudermine Skin Softener; Urban Decay Body Haze in Uzi; M.A.C Lipglass and lip pencil in Magenta * Shot with Kodak Professional 160 VC * Digital imaging by q studios, inc.