Into the flames – supermodel and musician Karen Elson on taking back control of her life

FOR over two decades Karen Elson has been one of the most iconic and in-demand British models. Her flame-red hair and ethereal pale skin attracted the ardour of the world’s top designers, photographers and fashion editors. But life at the top of the fashion game hasn’t been easy.

Elson battled with an eating disorder and became increasingly frustrated with the lack of transparency and concern for wellbeing in the management of models.

(Agents deduct their own fees, commission and sometimes a model’s travel expenses meaning that models can end up out of pocket for doing shoots or are offered little protection while on a shoot which can involve gruelling hours, pressure to expose themselves in ways they are not comfortable with, working with influential but predatory photographers or be restricted from food, toilet breaks and even sleep.)

Karen Elson. Photograph: Emma Dalzell-Khan

In 2021 Elson decided to take a leap and leave her model agencies, choosing to represent herself instead. She also created her second album, Nashville.

We meet Elson at her Nashville home in late November via Zoom and she is clearly enjoying the independence afforded by her self-management.

Karen Elson. Photograph: Emma Dalzell-Khan

Would you join another modelling agency again?
I just can’t see myself being in another modelling agency, I mean never say never, but for me it is the lack of ownership models have over their careers. As a woman in my early 40s I like to be the one to make the decisions and do the shoots that I want to do, I have been around the block enough that I know that now.

Granted when you are young and not well-versed in the fashion industry you need agents to be mentors to guide you on the things that are right for your image.

But sometimes I feel there is this collective lack of information that models get about their careers and you can feel as two-dimensional as you are in a photograph. We have to be included in the discussion. They need to be able to make their own decision on if a job works for them or not.

That is why we just become so frazzled and worn and just so over the industry. This is why models don’t often have a lot of longevity in their career because they get churned through the system. What makes a top model a top model?

I think a lot of the time it is tenacity to just cut through the bullshit in a way. What makes a great agent in my mind is being able to make a decision in the here and now that benefits the talent but also to think long term – rather than just thinking about the next month or the next six months. Think about the next five to ten years.

Karen Elson. Photograph: Emma Dalzell-Khan

I read that one of the reasons you stopped having an agency was because you were sick of being gaslit. What kind of things would you be told?
It is the not knowing what you’re going to get paid for a job, not knowing what a shoot actually wants of you and arriving on set and you realise you have been gaslit and been told something completely different to what you get you on set.

(In previous interviews Elson has recalled having sensory deprivation for hours while having to wear claustrophobia-inducing bondage gear which covered her eyes, ears and mouth, leaving only a small hole around the nose for breathing, or being in a container of water in which someone had poured bottles of bleach in order to improve the “look” of the water, which resulted in Elson having to rush to the emergency room with burning skin and unable to see.)

Karen Elson. Photograph: Emma Dalzell-Khan

You work with your own hand-picked team for representation now, how are you treated differently to how you were with a model agency?
It has revolutionised how I think about my career because the onus is put on me and what works for me. It is very strategic and thoughtful. I work with two incredibly dynamic women but it feels like we are all on an equal footing as women.

We are all near the same age, we have all lived a life, we are all articulate women, so there is this sense of equality which I really like, and a sense that my voice is being heard and respected.

It’s understanding what works for me or if something doesn’t work for me in the grand scheme of things. It is very different to being with a modelling agency. I don’t want to overly bash model agents, I don’t want to generalise people as well but there are just some fundamental changes that need to happen in the industry.

The onus needs to be on the talent themselves. At the moment, I think models are being treated like cattle, almost just as a prop on set. I would like it to be more personal and talent to be respected more on set. There needs to be more protection and rights for models.

I think they way I work now it is about me and my trusted team as the mother ship and we are all in business together. We have a talent agent who can bring shoots to us, but we are in control. It differs in regard to having a model agency, because there isn’t this overwhelming and all-encompassing smothering sense that a model agency always has where they are in charge of everything, including your time. That can be exhausting.

Karen Elson. Photograph: Emma Dalzell-Khan

I can only imagine. So I listened to your new album yesterday and I have to say that, with all the stress of what has been going on in the world for the last 18 months, when I put on your music it truly was like balm to my soul.
Ah that makes me so happy as ultimately that is what it is about, I am so glad that translates. That whole album was literally created to be the balm in the height of the pandemic. Everyone was searching for a silver lining and I knew I couldn’t make dark music right now, I can’t make something that feels depressing and brooding – I had to make an album that feels light and hopeful.

Something that has a playfulness and a sweetness to it, so it can be the antidote to what we are having to deal with.

Especially in the UK, I was there last week and I am coming back soon and I understand it is really difficult right now. It just feels like so many people are climbing a mountain and we are looking for these proverbial silver linings right now. So that was the onus for me.

Karen Elson. Photograph: Emma Dalzell-Khan

When did you realise that you had a talent for music?
I have been making music ever since I can remember. When I was a kid, everyone would comment how I was always singing – I was called little sparrow as a kid. That is all I ever wanted to do, but then I became a model.

Modelling was an opportunity of a lifetime and it turns out I was really good at it and I really enjoyed it. People often ask what I prefer, modelling or music, but I do always try to say I love both. Both have a vital part of my heart and have a vital place in my life.

Karen Elson. Photograph: Emma Dalzell-Khan

I understand that you were badly bullied while growing up in Manchester because of your striking pale skin and red hair. How did you feel when you entered the fashion industry? Did you feel like you finally had a place?
Yes, I definitely felt that way, I felt like I finally met my people. When I met Pat McGrath, Steven Meisel … there were a bunch of people that I met along the line that allowed me to see who I was. And I saw how there were those people who bullied me for the way I looked, but then there was a whole new group of people who loved the way I looked and loved my personality!

It was like finally this feeling of being accepted, it was overwhelming. I have obviously had loads of hills and valleys in that regard as well – there have been moments where I have been accepted and then I have been shunned and that has been complicated within the fashion industry.

Karen Elson. Photograph: Emma Dalzell-Khan

The theme of this issue is “reflect”, so when you reflect on 2021 what has been your greatest lesson? And what are you most proud of?
This was a year of great change for me, it was a year of taking a chance on myself. It was a year of jumping into the unknown, especially when it came to leaving everything that I knew – which was model agents. I spent most of this year, eight months or so, representing myself. Sometimes you have to jump in the deep end to learn how to swim and I certainly did that this year.

Karen Elson. Photograph: Emma Dalzell-Khan

As I reflect, I am not sad that I did. There have been so many powerful things that have happened this year, so many monumental moments for me – I put out my book! What can I say, I finally believed in myself this year. I took the plunge and I learnt how to swim and I will never regret that.

Never regret taking that risk and taking that chance. I have been living my life according to what feels best to me and I have been cutting out the background noise of other peoples’ opinions.

by Nicola Kavanagh


Fashion Director KATIE FELSTEAD
Set designer NICOLA BELL
Director of photography JAMES HENRY
Photography assistants KEIR LAIRD, CHRIS OWER-DAVIS
Styling assistant LILY RIMMER
Set design assistant ELLIS TUDOR
Production assistant SONNY CASSON
Casting Director PAUL ISAAC


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