Exclusive cover interview: Karen Elson on a brighter future

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  • Karen Elson
    Karen Elson
    British model and musician
Photo credit: Karen Elson wears printed Etro top and skirt, photographed by Erik Madigan Heck for Harper's Bazaar
Photo credit: Karen Elson wears printed Etro top and skirt, photographed by Erik Madigan Heck for Harper's Bazaar

Shortly arriving in Britain from Nashville, where she had lived for the past decade, Karen Elson posted an ecstatic comparison on Instagram between her native country and the cosy feeling of pulling on a baggy, moth-eaten pullover. Cue some mildly offended comments on her feed.

"I was trying to say how it just felt right," explains Elson. "I’ve missed it. It’s been almost two years since I’ve been able to get back. I really felt isolated, not being able to jump on a plane and see my family. And it’s that sense of ease, of knowing where you are and who you are. Anyway, I love moth-eaten jumpers!" She gestures to her Joseph sweater, which does indeed have a hole above the leather elbow patch.

Sitting on a sofa in the glamorous surroundings of the Ritz, clad head-to-toe in black and sipping a glass of blush-pink rosé that softly echoes the flaming crimson of her locks, the supermodel does indeed look very much at home.

Photo credit: Erik Madigan Heck for Harper's Bazaar
Photo credit: Erik Madigan Heck for Harper's Bazaar

She has spent much of the weekend shooting our main fashion story in Oxfordshire with the photographer Erik Madigan Heck and Bazaar’s stylist Leith Clark, a friend of many
years, and is rhapsodic about the experience. "It felt like falling headfirst back into British life," she says. "There was a house with a moat around it, built in the 1700s, there was a graveyard from the 1500s. Even the cold, the rain – give it to me! I’ve had more cups of
tea this week than I ever have. And with the hair and the make-up and the beautiful location, there was a sort of wildness about it," she continues dreamily.

"All I had to do was get into the headspace. Who is this lonely white witch who is wearing her ethereal dresses and happy in her beautiful isolation? I am so glad to be creating again, because I got a taste of that being taken away [during the pandemic]. I walk onto shoots with the idea of 'let’s create something memorable'."

This is part of what keeps Elson at the top of her profession: she’s never just a clothes horse, she tells a story with every shoot. Modelling’s gain is the stage’s loss, as is clear from her starring role in Jeremy Scott’s life-enhancing film for the Moschino 2022 Resort collection, in which she plays a bored waitress daydreaming of star-ring in a fashion musical, and finds herself dancing and singing with glamorous aplomb alongside models dressed up as hamburgers and ice-creams, to tracks including her own single, 'Lightning Strikes’.

Surprisingly, however, Elson confesses to suffering pangs of imposter syndrome before every photo shoot. "There’s always a moment when you think, 'Oh God, I hope I can deliver,'" she says. "I don’t look in the mirror and think, 'There’s a supermodel', I think, 'How have I winged it for so long?'" In her presence, gazing at that extraordinary bone structure, the pearly skin and serene pre-Raphaelite beauty, it’s hard to understand why she feels this way. Yet, as she details in her recent autobiography, The Red Flame, she has suffered body image issues since childhood, exacerbated by bullying at school and pressures to conform from the fashion industry.

Elson was born into a middle-class family, and brought up with her twin sister in Oldham, north of Manchester. Her parents had a difficult marriage, and Elson recalls lying awake as a small child, listening to their arguments. At school, she was considered odd, teased for her pallor and her flaming hair. As a result, she began to suffer from panic attacks which led her to refuse food; at just seven, she was hospitalised for an eating disorder.

Ironically, it was the psychologist to whom she was referred after being discharged who suggested that she might model; he was the first person, she says, who complimented her on her appearance. From that moment, she nurtured a dream of escape into high fashion. "I’d sit and envision where I needed to get to," she says. "When you have nothing to lose, you play all the cards in your hand." And so, spotting an advertisement for Boss, a Manchester model agency that had represented Take That, she attended an open casting and was chosen. Every Thursday, pretending she was going to the orthodontist, she would make her way to the agency for lessons in how to pose.

When she rashly confided the truth to a school friend, it became a joke around the school. Most thought she was delusional, and one of the bullies screamed into her face that she wasn’t fit to model socks, because she was ‘so fucking ugly’. When, aged 16, Elson walked out of school for the last time, she tells me, "I felt as though a burden had been lifted." She was on a train to London the following day, and resolved never to look back.

Even today, she says, she feels depressed when she goes to Oldham. "I just realise how lucky I was to escape. There’s such extreme poverty, it takes a miracle like what happened to me. There’s no one advocating for you or pushing you forward."

Photo credit: Erik Madigan Heck for Harper's Bazaar
Photo credit: Erik Madigan Heck for Harper's Bazaar

"In hindsight, I have a lot of empathy for all the people who bullied me. I’ve realised they were all in really bad situations. One girl was living in a very abusive household where she was coming to school with bruises on her legs all the time. And when I was last back there, I met someone I used to go to school with, who had hardly any teeth left because of drug addiction. You think, 'It could have been me.'"

Yet fashion had its own pressures. While working in Paris as a teenager, she was sexually assaulted by a model scout, who then threatened to have her thrown out of her agency if she dared to complain; in New York, an agent offered her money for every pound she lost, so she put herself on a starvation diet. Meanwhile, her unconventional looks continued to divide opinion. One British newspaper dubbed her ‘Le Freak’, which she says was like being bullied again on an international scale; and at 19, she was cancelled from all her Milan Fashion Week shows after she was deemed too fat, which, unsurprisingly, led to a re-emergence of her childhood eating disorder. As she observes in her book: "It’s hard to stay in recovery and work in an industry in which thinness is so celebrated." And throughout her career there have been instances when she felt pushed into compromising situations. Once, she was photographed in a tank of water that had been adulterated with bleach; with her skin and eyes burning, she rushed herself to A&E, while her agent worried about pacifying the client with flowers.

Photo credit: Erik Madigan Heck for Harper's Bazaar
Photo credit: Erik Madigan Heck for Harper's Bazaar

Then there were the numerous nude portraits she was asked to pose for. "Fifty per cent of the time, I did them because I felt I didn’t have the right to say no. I just wanted everyone to be happy, and that was more important to me than my own discomfort. And it tied into my body dysmorphia," she says. "Everyone loved my body when my clothes were off, but when I had to squeeze into a pair of tight pants, they were shaming me... I just wanted to be liked, and have everyone think I was beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes you’ll put yourself through terrible things to have that validated."

When searching for images of herself for her book, she was horrified to find herself having to trawl pornographic sites to find photographs that had originally been shot for high-fashion magazines, and believes privacy laws need to bere thought. "How can those images be used in that context?" she expostulates. "Emily Ratajkowski speaks really well about this. She and I have talked about the fact that we both represent feistiness, and we stand up for what we believe in. The risk that you run is that people say, 'She’s difficult, she’s ungrateful, who does she think she is?' And the truth is, I’m so grateful, but that doesn’t mean I should be complaisant, or abused sexually, financially or emotionally."

Photo credit: Erik Madigan Heck for Harper's Bazaar
Photo credit: Erik Madigan Heck for Harper's Bazaar

So while Elson’s career has reached the heights – she has modelled for brands including Chanel, Alexander McQueen, Dior and Gucci, and was chosen as one of eight British supermodels to appear in the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony, alongside Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Stella Tennant – it is perhaps less surprising than it might at first seem that she has chosen to build her life far from fashion’s hubs. (Of Tennant, who was a friend of hers, and who committed suicide in 2020, she tells me: "I admired her so much, not just for what she represented in fashion but also because she fought hard to have another life in the wilds of Scotland, she was a mother, and an artist in her own right. She always seemed so effortless, intelligent and cool. Losing her in such tragic circumstances is a reminder that you never know what inner battles a person may have... especially when you’re someone who is put on a pedestal. It’s hard for people to imagine that you could be suffering, but sometimes that burden can be too much to bear.")

In 2005, Elson married the musician Jack White of the White Stripes, after a whirlwind romance – they met on the set of the video for his song ‘Blue Orchid’. The couple had two children, Scarlett and Henry, and although Elson continued to model, White also encouraged her to explore her interest in music, which led to her first album, The Ghost Who Walks (one of the cruel nicknames bestowed on her at school).

The couple split up in 2013. Was she worried for her children, given the effect that her parents’ acrimonious break-up had on her own mental health? "Every divorce has its challenging moments," she says. "We first tried to do the Goopy conscious-uncoupling thing. That all fell on its head, but now I can wholeheartedly say that my ex-husband is a dear friend and someone I love. I look at him and think, 'You’re my family.' I know him as 'Dad', I roll my eyes at his dad jokes and I offer him advice when our teenagers are giving him grief. Our relationship is purely that of parents. I’m happy that he has a partner in his life, and I have a person that I’m with. We know each other too well to ever let resentment be permanent."

Photo credit: Erik Madigan Heck for Harper's Bazaar
Photo credit: Erik Madigan Heck for Harper's Bazaar

She has resolved to stay in Nashville so that her children can divide their time equally between their parents. "I only saw my dad once a week for a few hours. I didn’t want that for Scarlett and Henry. And I’m so glad I stayed. I love my house, I have friends who only know me as me. I pride myself on being a mum first – Nashville’s not a fashion town."

That’s not to say Elson has ever been content simply to rest on her laurels. She wrote a second album, Double Roses, which was released in 2017, and this month sees the release of a third, Green, for which she worked with the songwriters Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk. "I go and hang out with them for half a day, and we’ll see what songs come up," she says. "Living through Covid, I realised I needed to put more regular music out there." The album is lyrical but upbeat. "My last two albums were heavy but this time, I needed the steam to be released. It’s about finding hope, not about my poor, bleeding heart... It’s about the light in the darkness."

Meanwhile, as the pandemic put an end to travelling, Elson used her time to write The Red Flame. "Every day I would sit and let what needed to, come out," she says. "I did find it cathartic." She also set up a Zoom support group for other models to share their stories in private. "It really broke my heart, the stories of agents or photographers doing or saying terrible things," she says sombrely. "One young, successful girl told me she hadn’t had a period for four years, but her agent was still asking her to lose more weight. I don’t want to be unkind or unfair, but sometimes you have to talk about this stuff." Her ambition now is to put together a symposium for the entire fashion industry to agree on a code of practice.

And at the age of 42, Elson seems finally to be at peace with who she is. "I understand that I’m OK, my heart is in the right place, my motives are pure. I’ve been given all these great opportunities, and I don’t want to let insecurity stop me from trying my best."

‘The Red Flame: A Journey of A Woman’ (£50, Rizzoli) is out now. Her new album ‘Green’ will be released in early 2022.

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