Karen Elson Lives up to Her Legend Status

Karen Elson Lives up to Her Legend Status

by Evan Ross Katz

She talks fast, because she's got a lot to say. Her words meander at times, but just when you begin to wonder if she'll find her way back, she connects what felt like a tangent to her original thought. You thought you were off-roading, but she was taking you down a more scenic drive. She does this with thoughtfulness and grace, and best of all, a sharp wit. "Am I allowed to swear?" she earnestly asks me early on. Of course she can. She's Karen Elson, for fuck's sake.

On her 18th birthday, when many are focusing on graduating high school, she covered Vogue Italia, lensed by Steven Meisel and made up by Pat McGrath. She's gone on to walk runways for Chanel, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen, Dior, Anna Sui, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and more. Ad campaigns for Louis Vuitton, Versace, Burberry, Lanvin, Tom Ford and more. You name it, she's probably done it… at least twice.

That includes a music career that has thus far spanned two albums, 2010's The Ghost Who Walks and 2017's Double Roses, as well as the 2020 EP, Radio Redhead, Vol. 1, and the 2020 memoir, The Red Flame, which detailed some of the more painful parts of her life, including a childhood eating disorder and facing harassment in the modeling industry. For a career often predicated on beauty, Elson has witnessed and experienced a lot of ugly. She's channeled that both into her writing and through group-mentorship sessions which she leads via Zoom, in which she helps young models navigate the industry.

Elson takes a more pragmatic approach than many with regard to solving the industry's endemic issues. She's less "burn it all down," and more, "let's light a match to illuminate the landscape, and from there we can decide what needs restructuring and what needs demolition." At 42 years old, she's a veteran, yet still very much in her prime. Case in point, her recent appearance headlining a Jeremy Scott-directed Moschino musical, Lightning Strikes, which is both an original Elson song and a teaser for a new music project she has in the works. And it's because of her ongoing work within the industry that Elson plays a pivotal role as someone who's seen it all, but with boots still placed firmly on the ground. She's nearly done it all, but that doesn't mean she's done.

So let me start by congratulating you and asking you about Lightning Strikes

Oh, my god! Thank you!

A new fashion film that you are starring in for Moschino, directed by the great Jeremy Scott. What was it like for you, getting to fuse your loves of fashion and music together into one project?

I feel like during the pandemic I rediscovered my love of new music. I know models to be multi-faceted. Every great model I've worked with, I know all these women to be very talented women, but often fashion just looks at them and in a certain way like, "Oh, you're beautiful for this photo, you're beautiful for this brand," and they never give us the opportunity to shine in a way that it is more 360. I did a a video with Jeremy that I had a small little part in it, Jungle Red, and we were just daydreaming about the things we love, and I was sending him texts of these old Lucille Ball clips of her in this musical before she'd done I Love Lucy, and he said, "Let's do something with this." When someone says that to me, I'm like, "Yeah, sounds amazing... but let's see if it actually gets done." SoI was just waiting, patiently, hoping that this would indeed happen, and it did. It was an absolute fantasy dream come true shoot, because I never get to do all those things at once. It's very rare to have a person like Jeremy just say, "Alright, let's do this," and jump in the deep end. And he believed in me, and I obviously believed in him. Watching him direct too. It's like, "Aright, Tom Ford might not be the only designer turned director."

That, and you got a chance to show off your skills as an actress.

The beauty of this time is that when you're creative, why put a limit on what you can be creative in? Even if you fail, try again. Try something else. I am very much of that mentality of if I have a creative itch, I have to eventually scratch it, because otherwise it'll just get under my skin until I do. That's what I love about Jeremy. He's fearless, and I see that same sort of fearlessness I think that I have.

I read your book. You definitely have that fearlessness.

I just hate to be boxed in. When I feel like somebody is telling me what I can and cannot do, there's that little feisty part in me that's like, "You don't get to tell me who I am." I've been so lucky to have the life that I have, but I've also envisioned a lot of these things and I've — excuse my language — fucking worked hard for it, because it's especially in fashion, nobody believes in a person more than the person who believes in themselves. Yes, it takes having great people on your team who understand your vision and who will push you, but at the end of the day, if I would have listened to a lot of naysayers in my life who said, "Oh, you can't sing, why are you gonna do that?" Or, "You're gonna write a book…?" I would have never discovered my potential. So my philosophy is always, okay, I might fall on my face, I'm willing to take that risk, but I'd rather take that risk than never do it.

I wanna go back to the beginning of your career. The very, very beginning. Vogue Italia, February 1997. And the reason why I'm bringing that up…

Good memory!

Good photoshoot! There are very few people who have their first time out in their professional lives and make such a splash. Looking back at that initial cover, what do you take away from that shoot and the impact that it had on fashion nearly immediately?

Well, obviously meeting Steven Meisel was a pivotal, ground-breaking shift that happened in my life. Before I met Steven, I had lived in London, in Milan, Paris, Japan, and I was still just 17 years old. I flipped through the pages of Italian Vogue, and realized that I was particular, and that it was going to take somebody great to believe in me for everybody else to jump on the bandwagon. And I had this intuition that Steven and I would get along, and I knew that if I was given the chance, I would take it and do my absolute very best. So when I met him, it was so serendipitous in the way that we clicked, and I was just willing to be shaped and molded. That shoot was my 18th birthday and I remember feeling like finally someone saw something in me that I knew lived in me. I knew that that woman was in there, I just needed a chance to shine, and Steven allowed me to bust out of my shell in a way, and even with shaving my eyebrows off with Pat McGrath and cutting my hair — I was kind of like a strawberry blond, mousey little ginger — I looked in the mirror and I'm like, "This is me."

How incredible!

It's kind of odd to say that that big transformation could actually remind me more of who I was. I kept pinching myself that day. Is this real? And then that night, I had to get on a plane and fly to Paris, but I missed all the flights 'cause we were shooting late. And I got on the plane and I was like, "Wait, is it going to Paris? Or am I, right now, going to Islamabad?" And I ran straight from the shoot and didn't have time to take my hair or make up off, so I had these big yellow half moons on my eyes, my hair cut, and I think everyone on the plane was like, "What the fuck is this?" And I burst into tears because it'd just been in this pressure cooker of excitement and like, "I can't believe I worked with Steven Meisel, I can't believe I'm gonna be on the cover of the fashion bible Italian Vogue." I think I cried the entire way to Paris and then got off the plane and did this catalog shoot where the hair and make-up and the photography were like, "This is the end of your career, how could people do this to you? This is disgusting," and I'm like, "No!"

Boy, were they wrong! You worked with Meisel, as mentioned, along with Peter Lindbergh, Patrick Demarchelier, Helmut Newton, Ellen von Unwerth, Bruce Weber, just to name half a dozen. So with that in mind, I'm curious, given your unique perspective, what do you think makes a good photograph?

I think it's a combination of many things. I look at the relationship in the very beginning, at the inception, between the photographer and the fashion editor. You think about what I've done with Steven Meisel with Grace Coddington, or Annie Leibowitz with Grace Coddington, or Brana Wolf with Peter Lindbergh, and more. The photographer can cook up this idea, but then the fashion editor will come in and craft the idea, along with the fashion, that is storytelling. When it works, it's a real collaboration between every single person on set and they're all in communication with each other. They're all pushing each other. A great fashion editor is like a photographer's worst nightmare, in a way, because they're just not gonna be like, "Oh, that's a great picture, moving on." I was just shooting with Grace Coddington recently and I had this moment watching her, she's on her hands and knees fixing the dress and making sure the shoes look right, and I was like, "Gosh, this really is — this is what makes a good editor." She's constantly pushing the narrative and she might drive people crazy for that, but she's right, 'cause she is looking at the picture as a story. I think that's truly to me what makes a good fashion photograph is the alchemy of all these talented people pushing each other some more, supporting each other, but also knowing when to say, "We've gone too far. Let's rein it in," or, "We can go further."

"What I've struggled with within fashion is that there tends to be this mentality that just because we didn't witness it, therefore it means it didn't happen."

I have a rather difficult question. So much of your work is about protecting models in an industry that often views them as expendable. Three of the six photographers I just mentioned have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct. How do you grapple with not these specific instances, but with the ubiquity and in many cases, normalization of such misconduct, especially for some of the most revered within the industry?

What I've struggled with within fashion is that there tends to be this mentality that just because we didn't witness it, therefore it means it didn't happen. When you're talking about such painful, triggering, sensitive topics, but also topics where people have been potentially harmed, it's not my place to be like, "Well, they didn't do it because I worked with them and I never experienced those things." I know better than that. I know from my own experience of just being mistreated at times in my career at various moments where a person could be like, "Oh, you're just imagining that." And it's been a struggle for me with fashion because, like those photographers you mentioned, other people's experience with these people has been vastly, drastically different to mine. And then being put to task in a way where it's like, "Okay, how do I react to this? How do I react when maybe a photographer is reaching out to me, wanting me to support them publicly?" I've had to just make the judgment call that the victim should be believed. I know from personal experience when people haven't believed me, when I've spoken up about things. I know how much more pain that can cause a person, and I do think we are in an interesting time right now as well.

Do you see fashion changing for the better in that sense?

I think fashion is still ten paces behind, 'cause I think there still is this enabling that happens and there's this like, "Oh, it wasn't that bad." I think sometimes fashion will tend to negate these tough subjects because it's like, "Oh, they were just being funny, they were just telling a joke, everybody's bitchy in the industry, you shouldn't have taken it so personally." And to me it's like, "Well, let's have a conversation about that." All of us have to talk about how our actions affect others. I'm sure I've had moments where on a bad day I've been a fucking diva and maybe hurt somebody's feelings. It's so interesting how it can be praised on one hand, and then it's like, wait, actually that's not cool.

It's a conversation you broached in your book.

Right. Like, I chose to not use pictures from various people in my book because I didn't wanna trigger people and I also didn't want to negate anyone's pain. That meant editing out a big chunk of my archive, but I felt like it was the right thing to do. But it's a tricky thing, 'cause I've had a couple of friends who have got caught in the crossfire of things. Ages ago, a friend of mine was pictured next to Harvey Weinstein at a fashion show. She only ever met him a couple of times, didn't know him, and then all of a sudden she's getting things on Instagram, like, "You're complicit." She's like, "I didn't know the guy!" And I do think that sometimes there's a blood thirst that's happening where people can think they know what the truth is, and then just come at you without knowing what really happened behind the scenes.

But then you have instances like Alexander Wang, where multiple accusers come forward with similar claims.

Which, I'm sorry, putting drugs in the water and handing it to a person who doesn't consent to partaking in that... that's just wrong. You just don't do that. But then a lot of people came for the models who have walked in his shows, like myself, and it's like, I never socialized with the guy. I walked in his show as a professional. We gotta hold people accountable, but let's also give grace that not everybody knows everything all the time too.

"Writing this book was to tell my story because nobody had ever asked. It's simple."

In a 2020 New York Timesinterview, when asked why you wanted to pen your memoir, you said this: "No one is ever asking about my insights and my career and job as a model." So I'm wondering what it is like to do a job for over two decades, and to be considered one of the best at that job, but to also not feel as though there's much interest in a more meaningful existence?

Fashion is appearances, so I think for a long time, even if you are good in your business, our stories were never told. I think weirdly, around the time when I came about, models went from being superstars to being a lot more unseen as people. It was a lot more like, I hate to say this, like we were puppets, and we had our puppetmasters dangling us from place to place. Nobody ever asked me how I was. Nobody ever was curious about me in my life, and if they were, it was through a fashion lens. And I can do it. I can turn on the charm on a dime if I have to sell something. But I also think fashion doesn't necessarily want that. It's almost like the more personality you have, they love it behind the scenes, but they don't want it to eclipse the brand. Or these days, I think too models become secondary to the photographers as the stars, or the designers as the stars, the editor as the stars. Models are such a vital part of all of this, and I think, to me, writing this book was to tell my story because nobody had ever asked. It's simple.

I wanna talk about your work to fix this industry. You've been outspoken... Actually, I don't like that word "outspoken," 'cause it — there's a negative connotation. You've spoken out in your support for structural change…

Isn't that so sad, to be outspoken about things that really matter, somehow it can be viewed as, "Oh, she's rocking the boat…"

Totally. Let me try again. You have spoken out in your support for structural change within the industry. I know you hear from a lot of models in your DMs, and I think that is such an interesting component of social media. We talk a lot about the toxicity of social media, and it certainly does exist, but there is another aspect of social media. I'm wondering if there are overarching sentiments or experiences that you've been able to connect there being any kind of through line or a conversation at large being that you are so tapped into both your own experiences and now the experiences of so many others coming up.

When I started thinking about doing this model mentoring, I recognized that in fashion there is such a lack of resources for models and people in the industry who are struggling with mental health. I do think that the modeling industry, and particularly the fashion industry at large, doesn't do enough for people who are struggling. I speak from my heart, right? And I say the things I feel, and I try my best to say them in a way where it's pointing out the obvious, 'cause I realize with fashion, when you come at people and you're like, "I'm gonna drag you," the door slams shut. So I've had to find this way where it's like, "Hey, I'm not actually here to drag you, just here to hold you to task about these things, and if you wanna be part of the conversation, you're more than welcome." But primarily, I wanted to do this for the models, because I know from my own experience, like you said, the moment I opened the floodgates, the amount of girls, and men, and all kinds of people reaching out to me, you know, it was like — the sheer volume was really overwhelming, and I think it's so easy for people in fashion to be like, "Well, that was back in her day," and I'm here to say, from what I've gathered from a lot of young successful models who have reached out to me, the same things that happened to me back then, absolutely happen to these girls today.

I used to walk on a set wondering "Are they gonna make me take my clothes off?" I thought maybe some of that stuff had changed, but according to a lot of these models, it hasn't. And I think for me, the biggest thing I would like to see is for all the agencies just to take a pause. It's like, stop the soundbites, stop trying to make yourself sound better than another competitor and just do a little work looking inward and be like, "Yeah, do we pay people on time? Do our agents tell our girls exactly what they're getting and what their expenses are?" "Do some of our agents need sensitivity training and training about eating disorders, mental health…" Fashion is about how you look, but it's also how can you have sensitivity within that? "Okay, this brand may not want to work with you because you're not a size 0." How do you have that fucking conversation? Or do you? Is it really necessary to have that conversation? I just think that the solutions are so fucking simple, and it doesn't take that much effort to just do these things. That's the part that's mind-boggling to me, that it doesn't take that much, it just takes the impetus to do it and just to pull the trigger.

You tweeted about #FreeBritney recently. It's a subject I know you care about. I care about it greatly, and I think that why so many of us care about this conversation has as much to do with Britney as it does something bigger than Britney, especially coming off of the recent news that the judge denied her request to remove her father from her conservatorship, and then obviously, as you mentioned the Bill Cosby news. There seems to be a throughline here about not listening to, believing and respecting women.

With Britney Spears, I think a lot of it comes to the idea of often feeling like I had no control over my life. There's many years I had as a model where I didn't know where I was going, what I was getting paid, who I'm working with, and it sometimes felt like this sort of servitude, like, who's working for who here? And it's on a much more minuscule level, but to think about Britney as she struggled with her own mental health, as she's denied the right to even pick her own lawyer. It just is a real thing about what it is like to be a god damn woman in this world. We can scream from the mountain tops about things that have happened to us but people still don't listen.

I think about a lot of the awful trans bills that are happening and that are allowed to happen. On one side of the scale, you've got so much beauty in people speaking out and owning their truth and owning who the fuck they are and standing up for all the right things, then on the flip side, you've got — yeah, these trans bills, you've got Bill Cosby, you've got Britney who doesn't have any fucking freedom, and much worse, you've got people being killed on the streets for the color of their skin. It's so hard because what keeps happening is that you make strides and then there is a big setback, and all I can do is just hope that, you know, big picture stuff, that it isn't like these things are gonna happen and all the sudden the world's gonna change. I have two teenage kids, and I will say, looking at the world through their eyes, I'm really hopeful. The dialogues that they're having with their friends, the level of accountability, the level of ownership of who they are and what they are is so inspiring. It wasn't like that during my generation. I look at my kids and I just see this openness and freedom of who they are, that I think it's this new generation as they're coming up, this evolution does keep happening.

But credit needs to be given to a mother like you, for instance, because yes, I agree with you, the generation is changing, but that change is helped brought about by the parents that instill a value system in their kids.

I'm trying my best.

You spoke to The Cut's Matthew Schneier about a fear you have saying, "I hope I don't get retaliated against for standing up for myself, I hope I don't black listed for wanting to go at it alone, but I feel I've reached the point of no return where I have to at least give it a shot." That was almost two months ago. I'm just curious, in these last two months, a lot's changed in the world, and perhaps for you as well, so tell me, how do you feel about that now?

It's actually been amazing, and every single day I am reminded that my decision has been the right decision for me. It's a learning curve, don't get me wrong. I feel like I've done some shoots recently, including the Moschino one, that have reminded me why I love fashion. It's so interesting when you take a leap of faith on yourself. There are still moments where I think, "Oh God, will I ever make money again? Will I ever be able to do X, Y, Z?" I've been working with friends, I've been working with the people I like to work with, it felt so empowering to be on the emails to, even at times, to negotiate for myself, because again, nobody knows my worth more than I do. I'm so glad that I took a chance on myself. I'm so glad that I trusted my gut enough to jump into the deep end, but it's like I'm learning how to swim. You know what I mean? It's like I'm learning how to navigate these waters.

I wanna thank you so much. You live up to the legend in every sense. I just am really honored to spend this time with you. You make me excited about the possibility of what this fashion industry will be.

Let's hope, right? Because it's time to change the way we do things. But like I said, you can do that with fucking love too. You don't have to walk in, guns ablazin' and be like, "You're all out of here." But there's a lot of people that, yeah, maybe it is time to step aside and let the new in, let the kids come and show us how it's done.

Welcome to "Wear Me Out,"a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.

Photography: Emily Dorio


The Saintly Queens of 'RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars' 9

Story by Andrew Nguyen / Photography by Devin Kasparian