Karen Elson Has the Power
Karen Elson was "discovered," to use the modeling industry's vaguely gold-mining term, when she was 15 and living in Manchester, England. She left her hometown a year later and appeared on the cover of Italian Vogue, photographed by Steven Meisel, on her 18th birthday. In the years since, Elson, now 42, has remained dominant, her beauty — ethereal, surreal, and powerful — still in demand from brands, magazines, and all the arbitrary things that constitute a model's "relevancy." Based in Nashville with her two children by her ex-husband, musician Jack White, she also has a prolific singing career, swinging in and out of the culture from her deliberately low-key base.
After 18 months of the universally painful and isolating COVID-19 experience, the modeling industry has been one of the first to revert to less than empathetic behavior. So Elson did something radical: She left her agents and now represents herself. The boldness of the move cannot be overstated. Agents not only groom a model's career, they manage finances and travel, often breeding less independence than codependence. And that, of course, can be less than healthy.
Laura Brown: Karen, I'm so happy you did this. I want women to look at you and go, "I can handle myself too," in whatever way that means for them.
Karen Elson: COVID, as difficult as it's been, gave me an opportunity to slow down and take stock. When I did that, I realized I was unhappy. I had no control over my life — it was a series of destinations, scheduling. There'd be so many times when I'd have to forgo important moments in my kids' lives for my job. I became a version of myself that I didn't particularly like. I've had an amazing career. I love collaborating with great photographers, designers, hairstylists, and makeup artists, but there are moments when I don't like the business.
LB: It can be a very mercenary business.
KE: No disrespect to model agents. They're just doing what they know to do, cranking out shoot after shoot. But I didn't want to do the same old stuff. Leaving my modeling agencies was terrifying, because since I was 15 years old, that's all I've known. But I also knew that as I evolved and healed from some dark stuff, I couldn't in good conscience exist in an environment where I felt like I was being gaslit.
LB: That's very gutsy, because agents are good at convincing you that they're indispensable.
KE: I had to stand up for my values, even if I took a hit in the fashion business. Otherwise, I was going to quit. It's a very different business than [when I started] 25 years ago. Then it was all about Italian Vogue and these untouchable images, which I'm so proud of and so glad that I did, but now it's about women taking charge.
LB: Let's get into what fashion does to you if you buy in to it too much — you said you weren't your greatest self.
KE: It's this feeling that unless you're completely, 100 percent dedicated to the drama and the bitchiness, you'll be forgotten about. For years it's always been a fear of mine. But that was getting old. How many dinners can you stay at where you're gossiping about somebody? Or being sucked down the rabbit hole of how people perceive you? There is this sort of Marilyn Monroe complex that happens a lot with famous women because our personalities are often not seen. This business projects so much on a person. The more outrageous you act, the more broken you are, the more susceptible to be manipulated you are. When I was at my weakest and sickest was when people were just like, "We love you. You're so major. You're incredible."
LB: It's unconscionable.
KE: Pitting women against one another is a drama as well. There's no team camaraderie. I think of Carolyn Murphy, Amber Valletta, Shalom Harlow, Erin O'Connor, and even the young girls — Adut Akech, Kiki Willems, Rianne Van Rompaey. I like all of these women. Why can't we lift one another up? It's been refreshing to represent myself and work with my management team. It makes me more eager to go to work.
LB: You've been a prominent voice regarding the treatment of models. You used to be on the board of the Model Alliance and you host Model Mentor sessions for young girls new to the business. For a long time, you found it hard to say no, right?
KE: I would always feel like I had to justify it, because I'm letting somebody down if I'm not dropping my entire life. Standing up for myself threatened people, so it turned into, "Is she doing OK?" Models are so powerful, yet on the inside they're made insecure by people whispering in their ear that they're not good enough. I can't take that bullshit anymore.
LB: A lot of that comes with exposure and maturity as well.
KE: It does. I've got two teenage kids. The way my daughter relates to the world informs me a lot.
LB: What is your advice to some of the younger models?
KE: That they're allowed to ask questions, especially about finances. A lot of models don't know how much they're getting paid. It's been a big struggle throughout my career to have that transparency. I found myself in many situations where the payment didn't add up, and it's not because anybody's doing anything shady. It's just very careless, and [asking questions] stops the momentum. It's like, "Oh, you're flying to Paris to do the shoot, but all of your expenses — the 20 percent agency fee, the 20 percent commission — are coming out of your rate." So that's 40 percent of the pie, not including taxes. There's no email trail, and the attitude is, "Babe, don't worry."
LB: Agents are on the phone all the time. Calling rather than emailing.
KE: Exactly. Appearances are deceiving. You can see a person in a magazine and think, "Oh my god. She's a model. She's raking it in." But if you're not coming from a wealthy background that can financially support you in the beginning, it's a very difficult business to get into. You have to hustle and dig into your pockets.
LB: But even if you're established, falling in line is expected.
KE: A prime example: I took my kids on an amazing holiday. I felt like I hadn't been as present as I could have been as a mother, and it was tearing my heart out. We get there, and I'm getting emails: "Oh, there's a shoot. Just seeing if we can get you from there to here," and I was like, "No." But then I was getting DMs from the photographer: "I can't believe you're not available."
LB: What sort of stuns me is that after COVID — and all the personal distillations that happened with that—some modeling agencies haven't adjusted at all.
KE: I agree. There is a real disconnect. And people can say, "Oh, that happened 10, 15 years ago. Not now." It is still happening today. Young women are being told that they have to lose weight in a manner that is so unhealthy. One model reached out to me, and her story just broke my heart. She'd been very successful for a while and hadn't had a period in four years.
She also didn't know what money she was getting. Had no fucking clue. Her agent would work her so hard. It was like, you're at a fitting until 2 in the morning, then up at 5 to go to the show. No compassion for a person's well-being. She got physically sick and was just, "I don't know how to get back into the business and not get sick again." But there's this gaslighting of fashion that's, "Oh, no. We're not that kind of agency."
LB: And on top of all the egregiousness, it's shortsighted. Caring about a person is going to engender a longer and more valuable relationship. It's just better business.
KE: And a longer career. I look at someone like Maye Musk, who I'm obsessed with, and I think, "All right. She's 73 years old. She's badass. She's still doing it." And the norms are being finally pushed up against. I look at Precious Lee. I look at Paloma [Elsesser]. Even Kaia [Gerber], who's now acting. These girls have got so much more to offer than just their beauty. Something has shifted. I remember [casting director] James Scully said to me that in the '80s the models had all the power. They were the ones who were calling the shots, like Linda Evangelista: "I don't get out of bed for less than $10,000." I love Linda, by the way. She is the funniest person on the planet. But they were in charge, and then. Somewhere in the '90s it went to, "Oh, they've got too much power. We've got to smack them back down."
LB: What do you think about models and social media?
KE: With social media, models became superstars again. I'm not trying to slight anybody here, but it helped if you came from a certain background. I have a problem with people judging a person because they were just born into a certain thing. They can't help that. But with the fickleness of fashion, they love when you're the daughter of someone. It's a lot harder for the younger girls now who, like me, may come from up north [of England] to become a superstar. They don't have the resources. Back then, Kate could be Kate Moss from Croydon. Naomi [Campbell] is from South London, as well.
LB: I was talking to Christy [Turlington Burns], and she said, "We were kind of like silent-film actresses," and I was saying you're all really chatty — you, [Carolyn] Murphy, Helena Christensen, Christy. But there were years when you couldn't say anything.
KE: Nobody wanted to hear what we had to say. And if they did, it was the curated thing: "I love this dress I'm wearing. It's my favorite."
LB: If only you ladies could start a consulting and support network for all these young foals.
KE: I've been toying around with the idea of a collective of models who are able to say, "This is how we want to work."Guinevere van Seenus, who is one of my biggest muses in the industry, and I talked a lot about Emily Ratajkowski's ownership of her photographs [Ratajkowski's searing essay, "Buying Myself Back," was published in New York magazine last September] when there were nudes of us going around for God knows how much. When I was researching my book [The Red Flame, released in September 2020], I was trying to find nudes and then I realized, "Oh, they're all on the porn sites now."
LB: How vulnerable that must make you feel.
KE: Yeah, I'm just going to go over to hotredheads.com to see what's cooking. But I think about that more often now when I'm doing a shoot. What is the long-term effect of this photograph? Are NFTs of me going to start popping up that I have no ownership over? How do we move forward with all of this? That's why I think we need a group of women, even if it's just us all representing ourselves.
LB: Otherwise, you just get whittled away.
KE: A lot of us have post-traumatic stress from the way we've been treated and how our bodies are transactional. I remember one model friend of mine had a debilitating stomach flu, and her agents picked her up, took her to a doctor, got her an IV, and then shuffled her to the plane even though she was still feeling terrible. Girls have told me that they would—and I used to do it too — starve themselves before fashion week. A dear friend of mine was so clearly anorexic, yet she was on the cover of every magazine. And everyone's like, "She so gorgeous." It's twisted.
There's nobody [on set] to say, "Hey, you need to take care of yourself." I had to get help myself. I knew that, especially with the eating disorder stuff, it was getting out of control. One former agent many years ago was like, "You should take Adderall. That'll get you skinny," or the version of it back in the '90s — speed, I guess. "You should take that, because if you're doing the transatlantic flight, just get off and pop that and take a Valium."That was the option. Upper, downer, and just eat vegetables.
LB: Sadly, change often takes a health-imposed epiphany.
KE: The grand realization for me was that you're looking at these images, and you're like, "Gosh." But if the woman has been diminished to that point, it's not iconic anymore. It's sad. You're watching the annihilation of a woman. But then you've got someone like Helena or Christy. Helena is the best. She's so fun. She's gorgeous. Christy is the founder of her own organization, Every Mother Counts. They're survivors, these women. They've found their way.
LB: It doesn't have to take 42 years.
KE: It doesn't have to take you getting broken. There are only so many times I can watch a young girl, knowing, as a mother, that she's falling apart, and not do anything about it. Somebody has to stand up for her.
LB: Karen Elson brings the revolution! It is the right thing to do. One of my favorite references for this shoot, by the way, was from a St. John campaign that you did back in 2010.
KE: It was beautiful. It was around the time Twilight came out, so they did the vampire, ghostly retouching on me.
LB: I'm sure that's on some vampire porn site.
KE: If you remember those old St. John campaigns of Marie Gray, the woman who owned it. It was power, like, "Ah. St. John."
LB: "I'm going places!"
KE: [laughs] "I'm going to the office, and I'm going to make myself some money."
Lead Image: Alessandra Rich gown. Dior headband. Cartier High Jewelry bracelet.
Photography by Yelena Yemchuk. Styling by Daniela Paudice. Hair by Recine/The Wall Group. Makeup by Romy Soleimani/The Wall Group. Manicure by Etsuko Shimatani. Set design by Montana Pugh/MHS Artists. Production by The Custom Family.
For more stories like this, pick up the September 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Aug. 13th.