Supermodel Karen Elson is no one-dimensional stick figure on a fashion runway. As her photo retrospective and memoir Red Flame (Rizzoli) makes abundantly clear, Elson breaks the model stereotype. Amy Haben spoke with Karen about her music career, her writing pursuits and more…
To inspire designers, photographers, and art directors requires a unique, mysterious beauty, one that doesn’t come along every day. The model has to have that “IT Factor,” which draws people to them like a moths to a flame. An interesting personality and creative references also helps a model pull artistic shapes from within.
In supermodel Karen Elson’s new memoir, Red Flame (Rizzoli), we are given an inside look at the highs and lows of the modeling world, from disrespect and sexual harassment to body shaming. Even this waif-thin woman was called “fat” by designers when she filled out a bit beyond the size 0 sample size. Certain industry insiders even class-shamed her for having humble beginnings in the Northern England city of Manchester, saying she should feel lucky that she was given this moment in the spotlight.
Still, the fashion world put Elson on a pedestal in the years 1997-1998, but then dropped her like a rock in the ocean when she turned 19. Some art directors didn’t even want to see her for a casting. Her self-esteem was hit hard, and an eating disorder kicked into high gear. She vowed to show them all she could be the skeletal product they desired, and work once again. In her book, Karen Elson shares her struggle with food deprivation, which is a refreshing admission after reading accounts from many models who say they are naturally thin and eat whatever they want.
At age 16, Elson had not yet kissed a boy, when a predator scout in Paris took her out for drinks only to pressure her to have sex with him and his friend while touching and kissing her everywhere. Luckily, she escaped, but after telling a fellow model about the near assault, she was threatened with being thrown out of the agency by the angry scout if she ever spoke up again.
Fashion and beauty shouldn’t be torture.
Along with all the trouble, of course, there were some glorious moments as well. Iconic fashion photographer Steven Meisel brought Karen in for a photoshoot in New York after she spent her last quarter to call him, trembling in the dead of winter with only a single subway token left in her pocketbook. They worked together intuitively, this twist of fate skyrocketing her career after he booked her for a Vogue Italia shoot. Steven suggested she dye her hair bright red from its natural strawberry-blonde hue and away she went – a young lady living her dream being flown around the world every other day to another modeling job.
A twin by birth, she was brutally teased in school for being pale, having frizzy hair, and a flat chest. Karen knew she would be shamed by her peers for attempting to model, but what she didn’t expect was that she would face criticism in the industry for her features. One woman even asked her how it felt to be ugly. Meanwhile, others saw her unusual beauty, her gorgeous deepset eyes and alabaster skin adding a dynamic presence to her photos. Being strange is an asset after all, normal is just boring. An important lesson in not listening to the naysayers with anything you are attempting to do. There will always be people trying to hold you back. Jump anyway.
In her mid-twenties, she met and married Jack White, of the White Stripes. They had two children, Scarlett and Henry, and settled down in Nashville. Though they have since separated, they have found a way to co-parent successfully. During their marriage, Karen started singing and strumming her guitar casually in her room. Her husband Jack encouraged her to make a record and believe in her voice. This birthed her 2010 release, The Ghost Who Walks, a lovely Americana album with somber lyrics which fit her goth roots. In 2017, Karen released a more personal album, Double Roses, on which her sweet and ethereal voice stand out due to a stripped-down approach.
As a coffee-table book, this beautifully laid out glossy photo retrospective of Karen’s career would suffice, but the memoir inside is the icing on the cake. An honest account of life growing up in a broken yet rewarding industry. She admits the fashion world has a long way to go with their acceptance of people of color in the upper echelon of their society. I was lucky enough to ask her a few questions about her illustrious career in the spotlight, as well as how she is dealing with life in our current state of affairs here in America.
PKM: Do you feel psychically bonded with your twin sister? Did you see it as being an attribute or a hindrance as a child?
Karen Elson: My sister is my best friend and one of my favorite people on the planet. Being her twin has always been powerful and never once hindered me. We’ve always had our own identity and separate interests so thankfully those things never bothered me so much.
PKM: Was it a struggle to model as a 16-year-old in a very adult world?
Karen Elson: Oh, for sure; you’re not supposed to be navigating the adult world then alone and it’s just too young. I had to navigate so many sleazy adults during that time which thankfully I did, but it’s not something I’d allow my daughter to do at 16.
PKM: You’ve mentioned being bullied in your youth. What would you turn to for comfort during that time?
Karen Elson: My twin sister and, of course, music was the savior of all things. It helped me profoundly to form my own path.
PKM: You love the music of Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, among others. Did those early-Nineties PJ records such as Dry and Rid Of Me inspire you to believe in yourself?
Karen Elson: I would say actually more Robert Smith and Mazzy Star helped me feel connected to those feelings back then. The first time I heard Mazzy Star, I heard music that felt how I felt on the inside. PJ was a revelation as she was so bold, so brilliant and so true to herself and her music. Especially her album, To Bring You My Love, helped me forge my own path.
PKM: As a child and women’s rights advocate, are you happy with the body image changes in the fashion industry?
Karen Elson: I’m happy to see more size inclusivity and diversity in fashion but we still have a way to go. I want to see it not just be a trend and just be the way it is. Women are beautiful in the variety of sizes, colors, and backgrounds. I’m tired of the elitism in fashion because it’s a very skinny white narrative and one admittedly I’ve benefited from, but it’s time to pay it forward and let the doors open wide. Fashion and beauty shouldn’t be torture.
PKM: You remind me of a goddess only known to modern eyes through an oil painting. What designers have made you their muse? Who are some of your favorite designers?
Karen Elson: The late, great Alexander McQueen was someone I’ve always admired and loved dearly. I would have done anything for him. It wasn’t clothing, it was art. He was an artist of highest order and I miss him dearly.
PKM: The U.S. is currently in an uproar. What good do you see happening with the changes among us? How are you dealing with raising your children in this climate?
Karen Elson: All I can hope is that goodness will triumph over evil. My hope is that I can instill open mindedness and an open heart in my kids so that they will know right from wrong and have integrity in life. They are lucky to have an amazing father who equally reminds and guides them of those things too.
PKM: You made a very cool version of Lou Reed’s, “Vicious.” I can feel your energy through the speakers. What impact did Lou and the Velvet Underground have on you growing up?
Karen Elson: What’s not to love about Lou and VU? He broke the mold for rock stars, his tender-hearted, beautiful music has moved me since I first heard it. “Candy Says,” is the most poetic and heartbreaking song I’ve ever heard. He was well ahead of his time. He spoke for the forlorn, misfits, and misunderstood. I love how tender and cutting Lou Reed was.
PKM: Would you say fantasy or memories are more important to you in the songwriting process?
Karen Elson: Songwriting is all about allowing yourself to be open to the forces that move inside you and then a lot of luck and alchemy. You can write everyday and feel like you’ve not got it, then lightning strikes and a song appears out of nowhere that’s tapped into something bigger than you. I don’t claim to be great at that, but the greats like my ex-husband Jack, Nick Cave, and Dylan all have this genius in them that’s just beyond this world. They tap into some universal truths.
“Candy Says,” is the most poetic and heartbreaking song I’ve ever heard. He was well ahead of his time. He spoke for the forlorn, misfits, and misunderstood.
PKM: What is your favorite band to come out of your hometown of Manchester?
Karen Elson: Hands down, the Smiths and Joy Division. Both capture the bleak romance of growing up “up north,” it’s depressing but epic, sardonic and funny at times and at other times brutally hard, and both of those bands captured that spirit.
PKM: You’ve made Nashville your home for many years now. Would you say that the people, the atmosphere, or the culture is the main draw for you?
Karen Elson: I love Nashville. I’ve got an amazing community of people who I love dearly. I have family here and am surrounded by great musicians too. I love Olivia Jean’s music. She’s such a cool chick and a badass guitar player too. I’m excited to see what else she has up her sleeve. The world needs more rocking women.