Model Anja Rubik Says She "Terrorizes" Brands She Works With — for Good Reason
"Modeling is a very specific profession where your body becomes your tool," says Polish-born Anja Rubik, who has fronted campaigns for Chloé, Gucci, and Valentino, and was one of Karl Lagerfeld's top muses at Fendi and Chanel. She has also been the face — and epic legs — of Saint Laurent since 2016. "Once you understand that you're making the conscious decision to become part of someone else's vision, you can absolutely use your body to gain power — and you shouldn't feel shameful or be objectified because of it."
Rubik, 38, now fights for other women to have that same sense of autonomy. When Poland's near total ban on abortion was challenged in 2016, she felt an overwhelming call to action. She joined thousands of people in Europe marching the streets to protest new restrictions.
"The extremely right-wing government, which uses sexuality as political ammunition, was trying to eliminate one of three exceptions to the law," says Rubik, who spoke at rallies and quickly discovered a larger knowledge gap central to the issue at hand. "It was absurd to me that people who were against abortion were also against comprehensive sexuality education, because that is how the majority of these unwanted pregnancies could be prevented. I didn't have sex ed when I was at school, but I figured that had changed. As it turns out, things had gotten even worse."
She began doing her own research, collecting data and speaking to sexologists and psychologists. The results were frightening, from a lack of access to contraception and low awareness about sexually transmitted infections and sexual abuse to the prevalence of "LGBT-free zones" declared throughout Poland. Rubik was, understandably, appalled. "If you don't teach kids about their bodies or safe sex or consent, you can't have a healthy and safe society," she says. "It's completely irresponsible — and once I realized that, I knew I had to do something."
In 2017, she launched #sexedpl. Initially conceived as a one-off campaign, it spawned a best-selling book by Rubik (which was subsequently banned in many Polish schools) and became an official foundation, SEXED.PL, that provides teenagers, parents, and adults with age-appropriate and agenda-free education on human rights, gender equality, relationships, and reproductive choice.
"I didn't want to just bring attention to a problem; I wanted to create a practical solution that can actually change our reality," she says. "We live in a very fragile time where there are so many incredible movements happening thanks to social media, but it was important to build a true support system, rather than just raising awareness by hashtagging the shit out of it."
On Instagram alone, the foundation reaches almost 200,000 followers — and the engagement rate is high, with community members requesting consultations via DM. Still, Rubik continues to face resistance from her home country. She's frequently sued by Polish politicians simply for standing up for sex education and LGBTQ+ rights, and she struggles to find brands willing to publicly partner with the foundation. "There are days when I feel completely deflated and quite terrified, because the subject is so heavily politicized," she says.
Of course, navigating brand relationships is nothing new for Rubik. A longtime scuba diver and ambassador for the environmental nonprofit Parley for the Oceans, she is outspoken about sustainability, "a very tricky subject" in the fashion industry. On that front, she's calling for transparency across the board. "I want brands to have the balls to come out and say, 'We are not perfect. But we're working toward a better tomorrow.'" She's also tired of greenwashing, or "when a brand just focuses on the things it does right, like one sustainable project that makes up only 10 percent of a gigantic company's production."
Those realities have occasionally made Rubik rethink her place in the industry altogether. "There have been times when I've considered not taking a job or just completely stepping back because of the impact the fashion industry has on the planet," she admits. "I've had those doubts. But at the end of the day, I am, unfortunately, replaceable. At least I can try to push them forward — I mean, people are exhausted by me on set. The whole Saint Laurent team is on high alert, and if I see any plastic, someone runs over to tell me it's biodegradable." She laughs. "I guess I terrorize them a little bit."
From sustainability to sex ed, Rubik remains steadfast in championing the causes that matter most to her. "You've got to act and have the courage to stand for what you believe is right," she says. "Will it really change the world? I don't know. Every day I just do the best I can."
Photography by Paola Kudacki/CLM. Styling by Anja Rubik. Hair by Kevin Ryan/Art + Commerce. Makeup by Georgi Sandev/Forward Artists. Manicure by Yukie Miyakawa/See Management.
For more stories like this, pick up the February 2022 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Jan. 14th.