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It’s a rainy Saturday in New York and Paloma Elsesser has just flown in after a 24-hour trip to Paris for work. She has just an hour and a half to spare to get to a friend’s wedding in Manhattan — of course, that couldn’t mean some at-home make-up and a makeshift up-do. ‘It’s just like fashion week!’ the supermodel exclaims as hairstylist Matt Bens claps straighteners around her signature curls and make-up artist Andrew Colvin fills in her bold brows with furious speed at her Brooklyn home.
A vintage gold Issey Miyake dress, sourced for the occasion, hangs in the background and matching Manolo Blahniks twinkle just below as Elsesser reels off her upcoming schedule. ‘London tomorrow for the Miaou launch, then Bulgaria to shoot a TV commercial, then New York for eight hours, back to Paris, then Saint-Tropez for a wedding…’
But then flying around the world every day of the week is perhaps to be expected from a successful model who’s earning her super stripes these days. The 30-year-old has ascended to fashion’s top ranks, booking global magazine covers, blue-chip campaigns for Marc Jacobs, Marni and Chloé, and walking the runways of McQueen, Lanvin, Versace and Fendi.
In 2020, Models.com awarded her Model of the Year and last year she bagged a US Vogue solo cover (the modelling gold medal), shot by the legendary Annie Leibovitz. She’s also part of the rebranding of Victoria’s Secret using ‘real models’. It’s no wonder these days that she’s simply recognised by a mononym: Paloma.
Her story is one of those fashion fairy tales. Paloma was born in London but moved to California aged two, to what she describes as a ‘hippy poor’ existence. ‘We didn’t have a lot, but we made it work,’ she says. One of four siblings (sister Ama is a model, brother Sage is a successful skater and musician, and sister Kanyessa is director and producer), her African-American mother, Anedra, and Chilean-Swiss father, Ben, are both artists. She was raised in mid-city Los Angeles, where her life became a hybrid of everyday kids and the celebrity offspring that pepper the city — though Paloma didn’t fit perfectly into either box.
A voracious reader, after high school Paloma moved to New York to study psychology and literature at The New School and imagined a life helping others. She became a familiar face in downtown New York, using her winning personality to flit between social jobs like waitress, working in streetwear stores and being tour manager for rapper Earl Sweatshirt. ‘I wasn’t that different from who I am now.
I really prioritise fun, experience and friends — I knew perhaps my life would lead me to a position with visibility,’ she reflects.
Paloma’s fairy godmother came in the shape of make-up supremo Pat McGrath, who discovered her on Instagram and picked her as a face for Gold 001, the inaugural product of the Pat McGrath Labs beauty line in 2015. ‘There’s something cinematic about Paloma,’ McGrath says. ‘She’s a modern Dorothy Dandridge or Lena Horne or Rita Hayworth. Her face, her body and her mind are beautiful — and she has a wonderful personality brimming with fun and joy.’
With Labs as her coming-out moment, Paloma quickly gained a steady stream of commercial clients — from Glossier and Ugg to H&M, which were all quick to capitalise on her knock-out looks, as well as her relatability and charm. Rihanna was also an early admirer, casting her in both her Fenty make-up and skin campaigns, as well as her Savage lingerie off-shoot. Though it took the high fashion world more time to catch on, Proenza Schouler and i-D magazine (where she is now a contributing editor) were early supporters. The rise of ‘Paloma’ also aligned with an industry-wide movement towards more inclusive body and image representation.
As a UK size 16, she found a voice on social media speaking out about her industry experiences, and the challenges to her body image and self-esteem. Others followed, particularly young women who felt a kinship in her honesty and candour. Her social media numbers swelled and her current Instagram count stands at more than half a million. ‘It was never intentional to create a following. I just wanted to curate a space of my interest and Instagram allowed for that. In the early days of Instagram,
I was internet friends with Kali Uchis, SZA, Jorja Smith — women with emotional depth who I found online and cultivated a feeling that felt safe. I don’t wanna lie to my community and the people who are close to me. I now struggle with [Instagram] more because it’s a work medium now. My challenge is always maintaining my honesty.’
Today, Paloma often uses her voice to speak on injustices (she was extremely vocal on the BLM uprising) and raise awareness of social issues — though she still finds it complex when she herself is used as part of social discourse. Case in point? For her most recent i-D cover, shot by Sam Rock, Paloma stands tall in a cropped sweater, midriff out in Miu Miu’s viral micro miniskirt and shirt. The photo broke the internet with many admirers, but was also critiqued over whether Paloma really felt like the right representative for the ever-expanding definition of a plus-size model. Paloma has never been comfortable with the labels affixed to her. ‘Everyone thought the skirt was custom and it wasn’t. No one had ever seen that outfit on a varied type of body — there was no way to imagine it. I was happy to represent a community that wasn’t serviced there.’
It’s why, at the peak of her success, Paloma is moving her mindset to mogul. Her first move is collaborating with best friend and founder of fashion label Miaou, Alexia Elkaim, on a capsule of colourful separates that speaks to the tastes of the two. ‘I know I’ve known her since we were kids, but she really inspires me,’ Elkaim says. ‘Paloma is bold, fearless and has always had to be so resourceful when it comes to style because she always made things work when sizing was more restrictive for her. I knew she’d be able to provide such an amazing point of view on the collection.’
Stocked at Selfridges, the collection ranges from sizes XS to 4XL, with Miaou committed to an extended four more sizes across the brand moving forward. ‘It was an honour and a privilege to do this with my best friend and to create change in an experience I know first-hand — to not be catered for,’ says Paloma. ‘It’s been a challenge and is an ongoing process. I truly believe this is just the beginning.’
I catch up with Paloma the day after the brand’s London launch at Park Chinois, where her friends celebrated the collaboration into the night.‘I love London, I consider it my second home. I was born in a bathtub in Kentish Town and my grandma has lived in Acton in the same flat since I was a baby,’ she says from her hotel lobby as the sun sets on another day on the move. ‘The people here are my true family — I can hang out with them and just sit in silence and there is a lot of space allowed for me here.’ On rare days off, Paloma is deep in planning on the top-to-toe renovation of her Brooklyn brownstone and thinking about how to fill the gaps she finds in the industry.
‘I think a lot about beauty actually — who prescribes it, who purveys it. It’s definitely a space I want to get into. It’s not unlike fashion where it provides a form of expression. I want to get into a place that is beyond my body and my face — and providing more space for that is for and about other people.’