Amber Valletta interview: ‘Modelling in the 1990s? We weren’t perfect, but we had a lot of fun’

‘Joseph is beautiful, its simple designs and classic nature’
‘Joseph is beautiful, its simple designs and classic nature’ – an ivory hand knit - Photographer: Darren Gwynn Stylist: Elodie David-Touboul

‘I’m doing a lot of self-reflection right now,’ admits Amber Valletta. It would be a frank start to any interview, let alone one with a supermodel. By the end of our hour together, she concludes we have ‘had therapy’.

But Valletta is not like other supermodels – she’s not the never-complain-never-explain type. She’s open and warm; trusting, raw and honest. When we speak, she sitting in her Los Angeles home office, make-up free, wearing an old Alaïa T-shirt and holding a chihuahua.

She is approaching, arguably, the biggest year of her life. ‘I’m turning 50, I’m 25 years sober, I’ve been with my partner [French hairstylist Teddy Charles] for 10 years. It’s a lot of milestones. It’s not that I think there’ll be fireworks – it won’t be any different than it is today. But I am looking back at how fast everything went and is going.’

As a second-wave supermodel, Valletta arrived in the early 1990s, immediately after the famous four: Naomi, Christy, Cindy and Linda. Her clique was the ‘waifs’ – she shared her first model apartment in New York with best friend Shalom Harlow, and a ‘cute little British girl’ called Kate Moss had just arrived in the city and came over to hang out.

She cut her teeth with Karl Lagerfeld, and her hair for Vogue. She launched Tom Ford’s Gucci in 1995, and modelled Jennifer Lopez’s Versace jungle dress before the singer even knew she wanted it. ‘I’ve been in the fashion industry 35 years,’ she nods. There’s another milestone, then.

In the famous Versace jungle dress, s/s 2000
In the famous Versace jungle dress, s/s 2000 - Shutterstock

Longevity is Valletta’s advantage. When so many fizzled out (or were, more specifically, dismissed by what has traditionally been an ageist industry), she is as in demand as ever. She spent almost a decade away to raise her son, and focus on acting in the early 2000s, but triumphantly returned to the catwalk again at 40. And this isn’t tokenism – she is getting the best jobs of the lot.

These days, though, she is incredibly selective about what she will say yes to. In the past year, she has walked for only Michael Kors, Balenciaga and Stella McCartney, and starred in campaigns for Lyma skincare and Tiffany & Co.

Her values around sustainability, she explains, now lead her career choices. Valletta is a contributing sustainability editor at British Vogue and a sustainability ambassador for the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. She first took a close interest in climate change in her early 20s, and attended a course in environmental politics at New York University. At the time, she says, talk was all about the ozone layer, and while fast fashion was booming, the damage caused by the garment industry was yet to be fully appreciated.

Valletta’s a/w 2023 Joseph campaign
Valletta’s a/w 2023 Joseph campaign. - Photographs by Darren Gwynn. Styling by Elodie David-Touboul

Valletta is acutely aware of the contradictions presented by her personal values and her job, and admits she is constantly grappling with them. She reads up and asks questions of every company before agreeing to work with them and attempts to use her fame to raise awareness of those who promote slow fashion. ‘I can’t work with someone who’s just churning out stuff that is thoughtless,’ she says.

One client she has greenlit is the British brand Joseph – she stars in its landmark 40th-anniversary campaign. That one, for her, was an easy yes: ‘Joseph is beautiful, its simple designs and classic nature.’ She first worked with the label more than a decade ago, pictured then by the late, renowned fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh.

She is now far too eco-conscious to do as supermodels once did and leave the photo shoot with the rail of clothes. ‘They [Joseph] did give me a really cool blue suit,’ she says, adding that she rarely allows anything new into her wardrobe, and that pieces must pass her timelessness test. ‘I love it,’ she says. ‘I call it my Harry Styles suit.’

Valletta’s eco-campaigning roots reach back to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she grew up. Her mother, who worked in a post office, was the first person she saw using her voice to protect the environment, and campaigned against the building of the Black Fox Nuclear Power Plant on Native American-owned land, which was cancelled in 1982. Valletta was herself arrested in 2019, alongside Jane Fonda, at a climate-change protest in Washington DC.

Modelling for Karl Lagerfeld during Paris Fashion Week, 1993
Modelling for Karl Lagerfeld during Paris Fashion Week, 1993 - Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

‘My mom would drag us to protests because she didn’t have a babysitter,’ says Valletta. ‘She was always community-driven. She struggled to make ends meet, but she would say, we have enough and there are people who always will have less and need more from you. She wanted to motivate us.’

While Valletta’s mother did inspire her activism, as a teenager she rebelled against inheriting her sense of style. This, with hindsight, was a bad idea. ‘My mom was very cool – she wore Dodgers baseball shirts with camo pants and Converse,’ Valletta recalls. ‘I thought that was embarrassing and I didn’t want to look like her, so I went for the opposite.’ Which was? ‘Laura Ashley. It was a big thing in Oklahoma in the 1980s – it was the prim and proper Bible Belt look. I really didn’t have any clue about fashion until I actually got into fashion.’

Valletta’s passion for performing was evident from the beginning, and to give her ‘an outlet’ her mother enrolled her in a modelling school, aged 15. A scout from New York visited. ‘He said, you’re really cute, but you have funny ears and you look like Dumbo. He started laughing. I was like, OK…’

Within two months, she had been selected to spend a summer in Milan building a portfolio. She flew to Europe with one other teen from Oklahoma, whose mother was the chaperone, as her own mother had to work. She acknowledges that she was ‘really lucky’ both to ultimately be successful, and to avoid the predatory characters who were notoriously operating in the industry at that time. ‘I have to say, I’ve been extremely fortunate,’ she says. ‘I have really great memories of my time early on. People were very nice to me. There were definitely people who were preying on younger women. I saw stuff. But I didn’t go down that path, I didn’t get hooked into anything.’

Valletta with Kate Moss and Shalom Harlow in 1996
Valletta with Kate Moss and Shalom Harlow in 1996 - Shutterstock

The friendships that she made back then, particularly with Moss and Harlow, have been lifelong. Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington, who were a couple of years older, acted as big sisters. ‘We had a tremendous amount of pressure that most people can’t really understand because it’s so public-facing,’ she says. ‘The pressure inside the industry is also coming from adults, and you’re a kid, it’s hard to navigate… None of us were ready for the politics of an industry. So we connected because you understand each other’s experience.’

Even though Valletta was young, she says she’s glad that her career grew steadily over a few years, rather than becoming an overnight success. ‘In the past you started out doing smaller magazines and built your way up,’ she says. ‘That was an amazing way to learn how to work and be a professional; whereas today, a lot of these young girls come in, they do one big show or editorial, and then they’re gone in a month. They struggle so much. I had time to learn – even though I was still a kid. I was 18 when I did my first Vogue cover.’

Since that February 1993 American Vogue cover there have been 17 more, including most recently in May, as well as frequent shoots for Elle, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar and Allure. When Valletta started out, the idea that a model could be super-famous was relatively new. There were exceptional cases – such as Twiggy, or Veruschka – but the world was only just feeling the quake from the famous four, and no one could yet anticipate what the aftershocks would be for fashion models going forward.

‘I never expected to be publicly known,’ says Valletta. ‘That was a surprise when people started recognising me. I just loved working. And I knew I was good at it.’

At their best, great fashion shows are ‘like theatre’, she notes. While that can still be the case from time to time, Valletta acknowledges that the industry has changed beyond recognition because of social media, and that it can never be as it was again. ‘I’m grateful that I grew up in a time without computers and without social media,’ she adds. ‘I do think we’ve lost a lot of creativity.’ She has adapted with the times, though, with a three-decade career to prove it, and social media has helped her to stay relevant.

Christy Turlington, Amber Valletta, Kate Moss and Shalom Harlow at the Fendi Spring 2023 show
Christy Turlington, Amber Valletta, Kate Moss and Shalom Harlow at the Fendi Spring 2023 show - Swan Gallet/Getty

There are entire forums and fan pages dedicated to 1990s supermodel nostalgia. YouTube and TikTok videos have introduced her now-vintage catwalk moments to a new generation. Valletta loves to see it – especially the funny ones. ‘It’s those moments with the girls, passing each other on the runway and trying not to laugh,’ she smiles (Valletta and Harlow’s 1995 takeover of the Todd Oldham fashion show lives for ever as a meme). ‘Or you are looking at each other like, “Oh my God, your outfit is ridiculous,” while still smiling. We weren’t always perfect, but we had a lot of fun.’

It means a lot to her, clearly, that Harlow remains her best friend (‘maybe she will jump out of my birthday cake’), but she is still also close with most of her ‘classmates’, to use Valletta’s term. ‘Everybody went and had kids, or did new projects, but in the last five or so years, we’ve come back around to each other,’ she says. ‘And our friendships have a deeper meaning today. For us, as with anyone as you get older, time and distance gives you a new perspective. We’ve real camaraderie, and now we look back and think, wow, that was a time.’

Valletta talks a lot about communities – the groups in her life, mostly of women, who help her to soar and keep her on track. She spends as much time as she can with her 93-year-old grandmother in Tulsa, and the matriarchal family do an annual ‘girls’ retreat’ with her myriad aunties and cousins.

She acknowledges, too, her ‘sober community’: ‘All of these people have buoyed me, and pushed me to be a better person,’ she says. In 1999, aged 25, Valletta made the life-affirming decision to be sober. She reasons that working in the fashion industry wasn’t the cause of her drug and alcohol addiction, but that it certainly assisted it – in those days Champagne flowed freely backstage, and a party lifestyle was almost an essential for the job.

Black bonded le, part of Joseph a/w 2023 collection
Black bonded le, part of Joseph a/w 2023 collection - Photographer: Darren Gwynn Stylist: Elodie David-Touboul

‘Sobriety is so much a part of me that it’s second nature,’ she says. ‘And my sobriety is uncompromising, I will not compromise that. It’s my superpower, it gives me my life. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to drink – it’s hard out there sometimes. But I also know that without sobriety, I’ve nothing else in my life.’

Her willingness to talk about the subject is rare and inspiring. Valletta takes her mental and physical health seriously and hopes that being truthful will only encourage others to do the same. ‘I tend to my spiritual and mental health on a daily basis,’ she says. ‘It’s something like if I had diabetes, I would tend to it every day.’

When I ask how she feels, generally, she answers with a level of self-awareness only achieved after decades of therapy. ‘This morning, I’m great,’ she says. ‘But I’ll be very honest with you, I’m tired mentally. I do know that when we get into these places where we’re uncomfortable, feeling apathetic or down mentally, it’s a time to go in, but what comes out of it is better and is brighter.’

She is keen to tell friends reading this not to worry about her, adding she is ‘blessed beyond measure’. ‘I just have to be in acceptance of where I’m at right now,’ she explains. ‘I don’t want to stay in this place. I want to be effective and I don’t feel I’ve been very effective recently.’

Some relaxation is on the cards. When we speak in early August, Valletta is set to have the rest of the month off, and will spend it at home on the Pacific Palisades coast in LA. She has been based in California for more than 20 years and describes it as the perfect place to ‘remove herself’ from the industry when she needs to.

Life suits her here: she enjoys the occasional kooky wellness fad (‘buccal face massage, inside the mouth, is my favourite, which I know sounds odd’), but is equally at peace hiking in the hills. She shares her life with Teddy Charles and their blended family – her son, Auden, with her ex-husband Chip McCaw, and Charles’s two daughters from a previous relationship – plus the chihuahua and a Doberman.

Valletta was shot for Joseph’s 40th anniversary – in the a/w 2023 collection, available now – having first worked with the label more than 10 years ago
Valletta was shot for Joseph’s 40th anniversary – in the a/w 2023 collection, available now – seen here wearing Black Cottenham - Photographer: Darren Gwynn Stylist: Elodie David-Touboul

Auden, 22, has inherited her easy-going approach and her dedication to looking after the world around him. ‘He’s a very loving person and a gentle soul,’ she says. ‘He’s switching career ideas – he’s still in university but he wants to do something that’s service-oriented.’

As an almost-empty-nester, Valletta has had the chance to think about her own next act, and reveals she’d like to get back into acting. She took a break from modelling in the early 2000s to pursue film and television parts, with a breakthrough role in What Lies Beneath (2000). She also starred with Will Smith in 2005’s Hitch, and had a recurring role in the TV series Revenge.

‘It was extremely tough to get into acting because models haven’t always been well perceived in that industry,’ she says. ‘I had to put modelling down in order to have to take myself seriously as an actress for almost a decade. I had a great time but I haven’t worked in that industry in a while. I needed space from it, but I’m ready now to take on a project again.’

Her goal is to work with an open-minded director, who could focus on her versatility rather than her supermodel beauty. ‘It could be for just five minutes in a film – a great cameo would be cool,’ she says. Being typecast is her nightmare. ‘I feel like in film and television I’ve gotten stuck in people seeing me as the beautiful mistress. I’m happy to lose myself. Now I want to be unexpected and different.’

Her piercing green eyes flicker. ‘I would love to get weird.’