When Rosie Huntington-Whiteley was a fashion-obsessed 15-year-old living in her rural hometown of Devon, England, aka “the middle of nowhere,” she cold-called her way around London looking for someone, anyone, in the industry to give her an internship as part of a work-study program at school. A small modeling agency in Soho said yes, and she promptly spent a week at its offices emptying ashtrays and making photocopies. And although she wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted to do yet—design, yes; styling, maybe—not once did it occur to her that she had what it takes to make a career in front of the camera.
“I remember the models walking in, and they were like goddesses to me,” says Huntington-Whiteley, now 29 and based in Los Angeles. “They were so stylish and elegant with their beautiful skin and blasé attitude. I just remember being like, ‘Oh my god, these girls are like swans.’”
It wasn’t that Huntington-Whiteley was unattractive (though she claims her fair share of awkward-phase afflictions: a layer of baby fat, spotty skin, and overplucked eyebrows); it was simply a matter of how she was raised. “I don’t remember people saying, ‘You’re so pretty,’ or, ‘You’re gorgeous,’” she says of her childhood. “You were praised for getting good grades or winning the race. Being aware of how you look was never encouraged. I feel lucky for that.”
One could argue that this foundation—a sense of self-worth and confidence derived from actions over artifice—is crucial to her enduring appeal in a business that doesn’t always go all that deep. Because even when she’s gazing back at you from glossy magazine covers or high-profile ad campaigns (Burberry and Versace, to name two), or walking the Balmain runway in a sparkly minidress, there is something inherently relatable, likable even, about this blond bombshell with the pillowy lips. It’s a feeling that she’s one of the girls and, above all, nice. “I like to keep things real,” she says. “I certainly don’t strut around my house in lingerie every night with four sets of eyelashes.”
Displaying a good amount of savvy, Huntington-Whiteley has found a way to parlay this approachable glamour into a growing business. In addition to modeling—and appearing in blockbusters like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Mad Max: Fury Road—she serves as the global women’s ambassador for Ugg and has a four-year-strong line, called Rosie for Autograph, with U.K. mass retailer Marks & Spencer that includes everything from lingerie to loungewear to cosmetics. And this month sees the release of a 17-piece capsule collection she designed in collaboration with Cali cool-girl label Paige, which she’s fronted for two years and counting.
“Whenever I look to partner with someone, I ask, ‘Do I like this brand? Have I worn it? Do I use it?’” she says. “There has to be that authenticity for me.” Here’s a story: Before Huntington-Whiteley got involved with Paige, she was a fan. She’d been wearing the company’s jeans for years when one day, while she was out shopping in London, a woman approached her. It was Paige Adams-Geller, the equally blond, equally statuesque founder of the line, who just wanted to say hi and thanks. But no sooner had they started a conversation than they realized they were, quite hilariously, dressed nearly identically in Paige jeans and the same Balenciaga leather jacket. “It was one of those unbelievable moments!” says Huntington-Whiteley.
“Paige and I have become really close friends and collaborators over the past few years,” she adds. “She’s a woman in business who’s happy to share and has taken me under her wing in many ways.” Together, the duo have created a wearable line based on items from Huntington-Whiteley’s own closet. Think the perfect linen T, just-right skinny jeans, and one-shoulder numbers that don’t feel, as she puts it, “red carpet-y”—pieces laced with rock and roll sex appeal. “I get inspiration from people like [Vogue Paris editor in chief] Emmanuelle Alt and [Spanish stylist] Barbara Martelo,” Huntington-Whiteley says. “Women who dress elegantly and feminine but not girlie.”
Of course, Huntington-Whiteley herself is the object of many a wardrobe crush. Her uniform of skinny trousers, louche blouses, smart jackets, and heels is the stuff of “model off-duty” Pinterest-board legend. But lately, and rather amusingly, she’s emerged as the foremost trendsetter of a timely subgenre: Google her name with the term “airport style” and you get no less than 787,000 results. Hence the photos on these pages, for which Huntington-Whiteley gamely contributed creative direction. “Looking back to the ’60s and ’70s, travel had a real glamour to it because only the rich and famous could afford it,” she says, citing the Rolling Stones’ heyday of cavorting around with Jerry Hall and Anita Pallenberg. Add the fact that Huntington-Whiteley averages about four to six flights a month—some with her ruggedly handsome movie-star fiancé, Jason Statham—and you’ve got paparazzi at every gate.
“People probably think I’m overdressed for the airport,” she says, though she’s quick to point out that she doesn’t get any more gussied up for the occasion than she would for a day of meetings or running around. “But that’s just me—a great outfit is my armor. I feel confident and ready to face the world.” OK, but the woman is no dummy. Once the cabin door is safely sealed from prying eyes and camera lenses, she changes in the bathroom. Off goes the supermodel getup and out come the cashmere pants, T-shirt, and slippers. And for the record, the loo in first class is just as small and cramped as the one in coach. “I’m usually falling over and stuck between the walls,” she says of her makeshift method. Another pro tip that’s worth considering even for those of us who won’t be photographed upon landing: She always brings an extra shirt in case of midair spills.
To be sure, in-flight Rosie—girl-on-the-go Rosie, never-in-one-place-for-a-long-time Rosie—is a mode Huntington-Whiteley knows all too well. Lately, though, as she moves into her 30s, she’s been wondering what it would be like to be less nomadic. “I sometimes feel like the last 13 years were spent in the air,” she says, adding that having her feet planted on more solid ground would allow her to cement meaningful new friendships and relationships, as well as tend to existing ones. “I look forward to starting a family,” she says, describing her bond with Statham as the “most cherished and sacred thing in my life.” She’d also like to see her two younger siblings, Florence and Toby, more often, as well as her parents. “The greatest gift they ever gave me was the freedom to go out and explore when I was young,” she says. “Now that I’m getting older, I feel more keen to spend time with them.”
Whatever the future holds, Huntington-Whiteley isn’t going to wait for it to come to her. “I’ve always had a clear idea of what I wanted to achieve next,” she says, sounding not far from the teen who hustled her way to London. “I’m very driven, and I visualize what I want for my life.” And if that means fewer frequent-flier miles, we’ll just have to get our airport-style inspo from somewhere else.
Hair: Adir Abergel for Starworks Artists. Makeup: Kate Lee for Starworks Artists. Manicure: Ashlie Johnson for The Wall Group. Set design: Cooper Vasquez for The Magnet Agency.