"I feel like I’m finally in the timeline I want to be in," the supermodel says after taking a break from the limelight to heal.

By Kerry Diamond
Updated Feb 07, 2020 @ 8:00 am
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The clear blue sky is morphing into a dusky blush pink as Shalom Harlow sips ginger tea in the backyard of a rustic California café. In her vintage Levi’s, Patagonia flannel, Jungmaven hemp T-shirt, and scruffy boots, she looks more like a modern farmer than an off-duty supermodel who has graced every fashion magazine imaginable. A hippie at heart, Harlow is clearly content in her surroundings. "I spent my summers at a cottage in Canada where I roamed like a little wild creature,” she recalls. “I was barefoot the whole time. I just was oriented toward nature, always."

VIDEO: Shalom Harlow, Supermodel

The fashion world, however, cast Harlow in a very different role: that of catwalk queen and designer muse. Discovered at a Cure concert in Toronto in 1989 at age 15, she became one of the defining faces of the ’90s. The industry fell for the former ballet dancer whose expressiveness and poise made everything she wore look like a work of art. Harlow seemed so at ease on the runways of Chanel, Christian Lacroix, and Yves Saint Laurent that she wore couture as casually as sweats. “I really gave so much of myself to it,” she says. “I let my animal nature guide me, and that’s why I’ve been a dynamic cohort to these artists. I used to get scolded because I would be so insistent on being part of the creative process.”

When Harlow thinks back to her younger self, she laughs. “I was sassy as shit,” she says. “A super little foot stomper.” She grew up fast in this strange new world and took on responsibilities — and earned paychecks — she never would have imagined. “For someone who came from a family run by a working-class single mom raising three children while cleaning houses, delivering pizza, and putting herself through night school, the financial rewards were significant,” she explains. “It allowed me a stability I didn’t have during my childhood, and it let me stabilize my family’s finances to a degree as well.”

Despite all the trappings, Harlow held on to the New Age sensibilities instilled in her by her mother, a proponent of Ayurvedic medicine and ozone therapies decades before they were trending. As a young model, Harlow talked about sustainability before it was a buzzword and later pushed clients to support environmental initiatives, like a tree-planting program with Lancôme in 2007 and a green fashion show with Earth Pledge in 2008. She bought carbon offsets to lessen the impact of her jet-set lifestyle and (TMI warning!) even used washable and reusable feminine-hygiene products. “Nobody wanted to hear about that back then,” she says, grinning. “They would have gagged.”

In 1997 Harlow added acting to her résumé. She made her début in a Kevin Kline film, In & Out, and appeared in a number of projects over the years, the biggest being How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, a rom-com starring Kate Hudson. But despite its mean-girl reputation, the fashion world turned out to be a kinder place than pre-#MeToo Hollywood. “I was told in casting rooms — to my face — that I could read because I looked fuckable enough,” Harlow says, shaking her head. “And that’s how the audition began. After that experience, I was like, ‘I’ll go back and play with my sweet friends over here because that sandbox looks much safer.’”

Her flair for the theatrical helped bring one of modern fashion’s most iconic moments to life — the finale of Alexander McQueen’s spring 1999 show, No. 13. Like a terrified silent-film actress, Harlow spun slowly on a wooden turntable as two giant robotic arms sprayed black and yellow paint across her voluminous white trapeze dress. As she explains it, what looked like a highly choreographed routine was anything but. “I got straight off a red-eye flight and went right to the show,” she remembers. “The producers were like, ‘Walk on that thing. It’s going to spin, the arms are going to come alive, and they’re going to hit you with paint.’” Harlow insisted on a quick run-through in the high-heel mules that she was supposed to wear and then ran downstairs to use the bathroom. “I came out to wash my hands, and Björk was there. I was like, ‘Oh my god. My favorite artist in the world is going to watch me not know what I’m doing.’ But it was Lee [McQueen] putting me into an environment that he trusted I would know how to respond to.”

However, the breakneck pace was catching up with Harlow. She felt exhausted all the time. Her porcelain skin became plagued with cystic acne. “I wanted to get to the bottom of what was wrong,” she says, but her schedule made it hard to fit in doctors’ visits. “There was no way to say no to the work,” she remembers. “My physical prowess and instinctual movements allowed me to collaborate with the world’s most recognized visual artists, but at the same time the industry said my body had no rights. The very thing that was celebrated was not protected. No right to rest. No right to eat. No right to say no.” This was long before organizations such as the Model Alliance (Harlow was on its advisory board) and Model Mafia came on the scene to fight for the rights of its members and industry rules were put in place (regarding underage models). “We were dressed up to look as if we were queens, but we were young maidens,” she says of her early years. “We were reflecting the face of the feminine to the world, but we didn’t have the voice. I’m so glad it’s better now for younger generations, but there’s still so much potential for improvement.”

Despite needing to take a break, Harlow didn’t stop. She kept quiet about feeling unwell, having been advised that it would be bad for business. “There was a lot of shame and secrecy around it,” she says. “There was a whole ecosystem that contributed to the glory of Shalom Harlow Inc. We all thrived from my ability to shine in front of the camera, but it was at the sacrifice of basic human needs and the body’s requirement to rest and digest. I was required to put the brand before my being.”

Plus, she adds, “there was no social media back then, so there was no way to represent your own narrative. You couldn’t author your own story.”

So in 2000 Harlow took a year off and then continued to model intermittently for the next several years. Her health issues worsened, finally coming to a head before her 40th birthday, in 2013. Harlow has never talked about this publicly, but her system was compromised by what she describes as a combination of Lyme disease, parasites picked up from work-related international travel, and black-mold poisoning from a home on the central California coast she shared with her partner at the time. She was bedridden and at one point needed a wheelchair to get around. “Deep chronic illness will incite a nervous breakdown,” Harlow says. “I did have complex PTSD from the level of infections in my body. There were moments of grace and surrender and a lot of moments of digging in my heels. My unhealed physical, mental, and emotional wounds had finally caught up with me.”

Desperate for a solution, Harlow traveled to London for a fecal implant, a procedure in which stool from a healthy donor is introduced into the patient’s stomach. (The treatment is FDA-approved in the U.S., but only for fighting a specific type of bacteria.) “It was the first in a series of major medical interventions that began the journey that saved my life,” she says. Afterward, she decided it was time to do the emotional and spiritual work she felt she had long ignored. She moved to a small town on the West Coast with a gentler pace of life and has been training with healing-arts professionals, communing with nature, and raising her semi-feral rescue cat, Rocky.

But the fashion world was clamoring for its elusive star, so Harlow decided to begin working again. In 2018 she posted a photo of herself on Instagram in natural hair and makeup, wearing a white tank top, accompanied by the words “It’s good to be back” and a dove and olive branch emoji. (The word “shalom” does mean peace, after all.) Then, in a long-awaited comeback, she walked the spring 2019 show for Versace, a brand she considers family. “The first runway show I ever did was Versace in Paris, so there was something about starting again in this way,” Harlow says. “And Donatella [Versace] is such a survivor. She knows how to resurrect and radiate.”

In photos of the show, Harlow looks sublime in a colorfully embroidered toga layered over a black tulle column, but her footwear made her a little anxious. “I forgot the little stage tricks like sizing down your shoe size when you’re wearing pantyhose so you don’t slip all over the place,” she says, laughing. “I wobbled my way down the runway, but being back meant so much to me. No one in the audience knew my story or that I was previously not able-bodied enough to do this.”

She then went on to star in the Versace spring campaign, shot by photographer and longtime friend Steven Meisel. While on set, Harlow, at full supermodel power, was filmed in a gloriously patterned bell-bottom jumpsuit, hair extensions flying, dancing wildly. Donatella Versace shared the clip, which went viral. Harlow truly was back. “It was a pretty infectious moment,” she says. “I felt so encouraged and supported. It meant so much.”

Since then Harlow has been very choosy about which assignments she takes on. There was a project with French shirt company Equipment that she art-directed; a Target ad with her dear pal, designer Isaac Mizrahi; a Vogue Italia cover shoot with photographers Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. If it seems like a slow burn, that’s intentional. “I’m still healing,” Harlow says. “And I don’t want to be on a plane every week flying halfway across the world. It’s not sustainable for my body or the environment.” She would love for the industry to find ways to work more locally and without such tight deadlines. “We’re all running around like maniacs,” she says. “We need to figure out a localized idea of what fashion is. There’s tons of talent everywhere.”

Despite her constructive criticism, Harlow’s affection for the industry is clear when you scroll through her Instagram, past favorite career moments and fond birthday wishes for her colleagues and fellow supers. Is she nostalgic for the old days? “It’s not a longing for the past because I really feel like I’m a present-time person,” she says. “It’s reflecting and honoring the past. It all feels very alive for me.”

Her main focus now is finding a way to help those with similar health conditions so they don’t feel so alone. “These multilayered chronic illnesses and autoimmune disturbances primarily affect women,” she says. “And that is why prioritizing your own needs as a woman is so important.”

Now that the model industry is evolving, self-care is a movement, and sustainability is a mainstream concern, would it be safe to say that the world has caught up to Shalom Harlow? “Aw, I don’t know if I have the chutzpah to frame it that way,” she says. “But I do feel like I’m finally in the timeline I want to be in. If we’re all just jazz musicians improvising, the rhythm is here now.”

Photography: Chris Colls. Styling: Julia von Boehm. Hair: Danilo for The Wall Group. Makeup: John McKay for Frank Reps. Manicure: Bana Jarjour for Star Touch Agency.

For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb. 14.