Nineties supermodel turned photographer Helena Christensen tells our fashion editor how she prefers the simple life to the glamorous one – except when it’s floating in a giant lemon with U2
Sitting in the cool environs of London’s St Martins Lane Hotel, Helena Christensen stands out like a beacon in the darkened bar area.
The Danish supermodel still has it – that unbelievable, head-turning presence. It’s a decade since she stepped away from full-time modelling to pursue her other interests and, in that time, she has carved out a respected and distinguished career in photography. Since 2014, she has also worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, helping to tell refugees’ stories and strengthen the voices of the displaced.
Helena is just back from Ukraine when we meet. She had travelled there with the UNHCR to capture some of the stories of the near one million people internally displaced by conflict in eastern Ukraine, more than 50,000 of whom are vulnerable and elderly.
Sitting among the group of fashion writers and members of the Designers at Debenhams family – including John Rocha, Henry Holland and Ben de Lisi – she holds the room in the palm of her hand as she describes the plight of these refugees.
Helena is a woman who believes in using her strengths to help others. Now aged 48 (she was born in Copenhagen on Christmas Day in 1968), she’s been a regular visitor to Ireland ever since she first came to participate in Ali Hewson’s Supermodel Show, in aid of the ISPCC and Chernobyl, at the Point Depot in 1996. The busy model was so horrified by heart-wrenching footage of disfigured children shown to her by Ali Hewson and Adi Roche that she agreed to help raise the profile of the Chernobyl Children’s Project and become their first ambassador.
Helena’s face lights up now when I enquire if she has any plans to visit Ireland again soon.
“I always have plans in my head about visiting Ireland,” laughs Helena – and this summer that dreaming should become reality, because of a certain concert tour.
“I will definitely try and go to see U2 play very soon,” she continues. “I am actually going to see them in several different places and take photos of them. I just photographed them the other day in Washington Square Park [in New York]. They are in fine form and working hard,” she reports with a big beam.
Frank DeCaro of The New York Times named Helena – along with fellow top models Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Elle Macpherson and Claudia Schiffer – as one of “The Magnificent Seven” back in 1996, but Helena has since skilfully moved from being in front of the camera to behind the lens. Now, having photographed beautiful places all around the world, Ireland is squarely on her radar.
“Yes, I would like to go to Cork again,” says Helena with great enthusiasm, recounting to me how she “took the train down there to a poetry reading in Liss Ard. That was amazing and one of those experiences that has stayed with me. I always want to go back down there – it is so beautiful.”
The adventure to Liss Ard, near Skibbereen in West Cork, for that three-day poetry event was by all accounts a colourful one, with Helena travelling down in the company of REM frontman Michael Stipe, Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Australian movie star Toni Collette.
Helena started modelling at the age of nine. A former Miss Universe Denmark and Victoria’s Secret Angel, she now has many strings to her bow, from acting to being creative director of Nylon magazine. And there was her vintage clothing collection – sold at her mum’s store, the Yo-Yo Second Hand Shop in Christianshavn.
Now based in Manhattan, Helena lives with her son, Mingus Reedus, 17, whose father, actor Norman Reedus (of The Walking Dead fame), she dated for five years. Since 2008 she has been in a relationship with singer Paul Banks of the band Interpol. As well as her Copenhagen apartment, Helena has homes in Manhattan and the Catskill mountains in New York state, where she takes endearing photographs and posts them on her Instagram account.
Describing her lifestyle, Helena says, “I love walking. If I can walk anywhere, that’s what I will be doing.” In her spare time, she likes reading and watching movies; other favourite activities are “leafing through books, re-organising my drawers – it’s very boring but I really enjoy that. I like really like tidying up and re-organising things. I guess it’s just my way of meditating.”
On the fashion front, Helena loves colour and print, and mixes her high-street buys with vintage. She adores browsing second-hand stores and describes the joy of “finding an old dress that some young girl 100 years ago lived in, and loved in, and that makes it very special to wear.”
Helena is in incredible shape and I enquire curiously if she drinks lots of water and ignores alcohol as a rule. “No, I’m not good at drinking water and I love wine, but I do work out – I box, and have for many years, and it’s a very good, intense, hard workout – and I love food. I have a few dishes that I make, like stews and Moroccan chicken, and my son always compliments me on my tilapia stew,” she says.
Turning back the clock to those heady days when the supermodels ruled the catwalks and the pages of glossy magazines, Helena acknowledges that the “level of fame, or whatever it was, was absolutely enough. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any more. I never wanted that part of it. It was just an incredible way to grow up and to be a young girl travelling the world, experiencing different cultures. That part for me was absolutely the best. When interviews started to be done, and everyone wanted to know what we thinking and doing, that kind of started getting on my nerves and I was ‘I wish that part wasn’t there at all’.”
Helena admits that the social media we have in our lives now would have definitely “added to that pressure, aggravation or frustration for me”.
However, when it comes to picture- driven sites such as Instagram, Helena says she can “absolutely see the benefits and beautiful things about the way you can connect with people over visuals and share important things in your life. There are sides to it that really make sense and really feel wonderful and there are other sides to it that, to me, just don’t feel right.”
Helena’s Instagram account has 134,000 followers and her posts include pictures of her beyond cute dog, Kuma, an Australian shepherd dog with compelling eyes – one blue and one brown.
Helena also shares black and white photographs of her early modelling days, pictures of herself and a young Mingus taken by Marino Testino, as well as SS17 fashion images from her most recent Designers at Debenhams shoot with Max Abadian, which we feature on pages 14-15 and on the cover. There are also portraits she took of Bono and The Edge from their 1997 PopMart tour. With her all-areas access, that experience was “an incredible gig” for Helena and “intense in a very energetic way”. On occasion, she would move from shooting below the stage to within PopMart’s giant rotating lemon.
“Being with the boys inside as it lifted off over the audience – hearing the roars from below, yet feeling the concentrated silence within the tiny space, as the band got mentally ready for the show – was mind-blowingly awesome. As the lemon opened up and they descended onto the stage, I was stuck inside for a while after with a technician. We’d grab a beer and chit-chat, floating in the lemon between the crowd and the sky. Pretty surreal…”
These days, Helena’s work with the UNHCR, her media projects and photographic assignments for various fashion brands make for a very interesting, wholly fulfilling life. “I live a very low-key life. I still have the same car I had when I was 19. I just like things to be basically simple. I grew up in Denmark, being in nature, and I’m grateful for that.”