Karen Elson: “My superpower has been that I never fit in”

Photo credit: Oliver Holms
Photo credit: Oliver Holms

Throughout her nearly three-decade career, Karen Elson has learnt to trust her instincts. Having first started modelling at the age of 14, she soon took the fashion world by storm, working with the industry’s biggest designers including Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. The supermodel, musician and writer appeared on stage at the 2021 Bazaar Summit, in conversation with Harper's Bazaar’s editor-in-chief Lydia Slater, to discuss the ways in which listening to her own voice has propelled her in her career, from walking catwalks across the world to recording two solo albums (with a third coming next year).

“I am constantly motivated to go, ‘Why not try something? Why not give this a whirl?’,” Elson told Slater. “It’s ambitious, but I come from a tough working-class background and there’s moments when I’m blown away by how the arc of my life has gone. I want to make the most of it; I don’t want to waste a single day.”

She spoke about her decision to leave her model agencies in the past year, explaining, “I realised I wanted to do things the way I wanted to do them, where I advocate for myself. I stand my ground. I know what work I want to do, and what work I don’t want to do.”

Photo credit: Oliver Holms
Photo credit: Oliver Holms

During this time, she also wrote her book The Red Flame, in which she chronicles her experiences in the fashion industry. “You don’t often get to hear the real story behind these faces,” Elson reflected. “I just wanted to be unfiltered because I think there’s something very powerful about any woman sharing how she got from point A to point B.

“Fashion is a really phenomenal place, but it’s also a very tough place,” she continued. “I think that often people do not put a lot of onus on models. You look at us and think: ‘Oh, she must have the dream life.’ Behind the scenes it’s a very difficult business. It’s very hard to be seen and heard.”

She shared one particularly difficult experience she had at the age of 16 when working abroad, during which she was sexually assaulted by her male agent and his friend. “I knew what had happened was wrong, and I managed to get out of the situation, and when I stood up for myself I was told I would be thrown out of Paris and if I ever complained again and if I ever told anybody, my modelling career would be done. And my story is not even the worst that I’ve heard. That is something to really stress.”

“You have actually been doing something yourself to change that,” Slater pointed out, referring to the group-mentorship sessions Elson has begun.

“I started doing this thing called the Model Mentor, because as models we don’t have any rights, period,” she explained. “We don’t have HR to go to if we’re not paid, we don’t have HR to go to if we’re getting sexually harassed by a photographer. So, I thought: ‘Let’s talk about these things, let’s have a support group.’”

Above all else, Elson expressed that her greatest life lesson has been discovering that it is her differences, coupled with a strong sense of self, that have been the driving force of her career. “My superpower, weirdly, has been that I’ve never fit in. Even in fashion at times.

“No agent ever told me: ‘You should write a book’ or ‘You should make some music’. No one is going to make your life for you: it has to come from within you to get things done. I’ve always believed in myself, and that’s the thing that has pushed me forward.”

Watch highlights from Elson’s appearance at the Bazaar Summit in full, above.

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