Karen Elson’s career choices over the years have been as bold as her flame-colored hair, starting with her first major fashion shoot back in 1997. For the cover of Italian Vogue, the English model shaved off her eyebrows at the urging of photographer Steven Meisel and makeup artist Pat McGrath, and needless to say, the daring move paid off. “That zany look was my most monumental moment,” she says, laughing. “It really got people to start noticing me.” Elson, 39, hasn’t experienced a dull workday since. “I built my career on being this off-kilter person,” she says. “So the shoots I do are never boring.”
After nearly a decade on fashion’s runway circuit, she settled down in Nashville with her then-husband, Jack White of the White Stripes, in 2006 (the couple had two children before divorcing in 2013). Elson continued to model, but after becoming a mother, she realized that she was ready to be more than just a pretty face. So she picked up a guitar and started singing. “Half the time I feel like I can express myself better in my songs than I can by talking,” says Elson. “Music is the perfect vehicle to quantify those things that we’ve all felt in our lives, from feeling alone to being in love or having a broken heart.” Finding the courage to share her deepest thoughts with the world wasn’t easy. “I had a lot of real personal stuff going on for a while,” she says. “I just didn’t feel ready. I had to wait until the time was right.”
In 2010, Elson released her début album, The Ghost Who Walks. “My music is really intimate and personal,” she says. “It’s very much the hidden side of my life, because nobody would know the vulnerable feelings I have inside just by seeing me in a magazine.” Her sophomore album, Double Roses, was released last spring. On the track “Distant Shore,” she sings, “I am alone, I am free, no one to come and conquer me.” It’s that lyric, in particular, that she credits as her most powerful songwriting moment to date: “It felt defiant and vulnerable at the same time.”
“Vulnerable” is a word that Elson, who describes herself as a “die-hard bleeding-heart romantic,” uses often. “I’m proud of myself for not being crippled by the anxiety that people would judge me or that I might suck,” she says. “Then again, when someone doesn’t believe in me, I’ll find the person who does.”
While Elson has hit her stride as a singer-songwriter, she has no plans to retire from modeling in the foreseeable future. Highlights of her 22-year career include campaigns for Chanel in 1998, Yves Saint Laurent in 2005, and Céline in 2008; she’s also been repeatedly tapped to walk the runway for designers like Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs, and Anna Sui. Elson’s staying power is downright impressive in an industry that isn’t always kind to aging. But while she was perfectly in her element during our photo shoot in Los Angeles, she much prefers the Tennessee countryside to California palm trees. “Nashville is a nice place to raise children,” she says. “It’s peaceful, and the entertainment world isn’t the be-all and end-all there.”
A typical Nashville morning involves driving her kids to school (“the commute is very nice and green,” she says), followed by a workout (often Pilates or yoga, and she’s obsessed with the Peloton bike she recently purchased for her home). After that, it’s “endless cups of tea,” spending time with her four beloved cats, and working on her music before heading back to the school pickup line. “I’m very boring,” Elson insists. Her style, however, is anything but. “I don’t feel that I need to look like a Southern belle just because I’m in Nashville,” she says. “And I’m not wearing cowboy boots or rhinestones, that’s for sure.
“I don’t get hung up on what’s hip,” she continues. “I wear what I want to wear, and I don’t let fashion dictate my life. To be honest, I don’t think my Nashville friends really give a shit if I’m wearing a Prada dress or Miu Miu heels.”
Elson may not feel pressure to wear designer labels in her daily life, but she certainly still appreciates high fashion (Gucci, Dior, and Tom Ford rank among her favorites). For the most part, she’s just happy to have outgrown the demands of her early modeling days. “I think fashion is a beautiful fantasy, but trying to fit into a sample size at this point is too much of the fantasy,” she says unapologetically. “At 39, it’s unhealthy to obsess over fitting into an outfit that’s made for a 16-year-old.” The conviction in Elson’s voice reflects just how confident she has become. “I listen to myself and follow my instincts rather than getting caught up in the madness of what people tell me I should be doing,” she says. “I’ve never followed a traditional path. My career is a constant source of confusion and amusement, both for myself and others.”
In terms of owning her unique look, Elson has never wavered. “As a model, I’m a strange anomaly because I don’t fit the norm,” she says. “I’m never the person someone hires to stand there and look pretty; I’m always the person someone hires because they want something different.” And that’s just fine. “I say this with great affection to myself, but I’m a funny-looking redhead who has a lot of opinions,” she says, chuckling. “I’ve had instances when I felt rejected for the way I look, and those terrible things can deeply impact a woman’s self-worth. But I’ve got this fire inside me that will always come back—and if someone tries to extinguish it, it just makes it stronger.”
Photographer: Matthew Sprout. Fashion editor: Vanessa Chow. Hair: Nikki Providence for Forward Artists. Makeup: Kali Kennedy for Forward Artists. Manicure: Michelle Saunders for Forward Artists. Location: The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
For more stories like this, pick up the February issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Jan. 5.