https://www.smh.com.au-By Sonia Haria
Helena Christensen: “Wanting to explore the world was one of the main reasons I even found modelling interesting at all from the beginning.” Credit:Jason Kim/Trunk Archive/Snapper Images
The window cleaners are just leaving Helena Christensen’s New York apartment during our call over WhatsApp. “Would you hold on for a minute while I pay them?” Of course, I tell her. “I could not even look out of my windows – they haven’t been cleaned in a year and a half. I am so excited, it’s so much brighter in here now,” she says, in a voice brimming with genuine delight.
She can be forgiven for the clouded windows. The model and photographer, who is now more often behind the lens than in front of it, has spent much of the pandemic at her other property in upstate New York, with 21-year-old son Mingus and a couple of friends.
“It has been a really fortunate situation, we literally just stayed up there. The fact that nature was just outside, and that we could do treks, cook a lot and feel safe was life-saving – mentally and physically.”
This “yearning for the outdoors” is a point Helena keeps coming back to throughout our conversation, and it goes back to her time as a supermodel in the early 1990s – a period that catapulted her on to the world stage.
Born in Copenhagen to a Danish father and Peruvian mother, Helena started modelling in the late ’80s. In the ’90s she appeared on countless magazine covers and was booked for fashion shows all over the world. In 1996, The New York Times hailed Helena, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Elle Macpherson, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer “the Magnificent Seven”. Although she continues to work on shoots and shows, her most notable appearance in the past few years was in 2017, when a group of “supers” reunited in an epic runway tribute to Gianni Versace.
But more about modelling later. What I learn about Helena now is that simply describing her as “outdoorsy” would be doing her a disservice. She’s like Bear Grylls, only cooler, with an enviable floaty blouse collection, a tousled, deep-brunette mane of hair and masterfully applied red lipstick. She takes “outdoorsy” to a new level.
Nature is “almost like a therapist to me – it’s everything,” Helena says. “Wherever I am in the world, I always find the little parks, the green spots. I need to hear the birds, I need to see green. Nature recharges me in every possible way. I like to think I was a mermaid in my last life.”
Mermaid is a more than adequate description. Videos of Helena swimming in freezing cold waters, which will send virtual shivers down your spine, have had hundreds of thousands of views on Instagram.
“I have a yearning to be in the water,” she says. “If there’s a pond or a river or a stream or the ocean, it’s calling me. I just have to get in.”
Helena’s love of the outdoors extends to her beauty routine. There’s her “river-side exfoliator”, for starters: mix your coffee grounds with coconut butter and a few drops of herb or flower essential oil.
“Wherever I am, I always find the little parks, the green spots. I need to hear the birds, I need to see green. Nature recharges me. I like to think I was a mermaid in my last life.”
“I mix it all together and use that as a body exfoliator. I take it with me down to the river, and I sit there on a rock and scrub. It makes you feel good and gives you a rush in your body. Which definitely makes it better when you jump into the river straight after.”
For someone with such a physical connection to the real world, perhaps it’s surprising that Helena has become something of an accidental social-media star, with 800,000 followers on Instagram. Scroll through her feed for a heady mix of Helena modelling vintage pieces of clothing from her fashion line Staerk & Christensen, the aforementioned wild swimming, and beautifully captured photographs of her eclectically styled homes. But while many stars use Instagram as a lucrative branch of their business, Helena’s purpose is very different. “For me, taking photos, organising them and creating this visual diary on social media is like a way of meditating.” But it’s important not to be consumed by digital life.
“Human beings have a certain amount of addictive nature,” she says. “There are, of course, a lot of benefits of your phone but there are obviously as many obstacles that have a negative influence on you.”
Just before our interview, Helena had spent time unsubscribing herself from “hundreds” of mailing lists. “You know, sometimes you just want to have a clean-out in your life from the constant onslaught that comes with you every day,” she says. I ask her if she’s glad social media wasn’t around when she started her career. “I think everyone is!” she laughs, “but I’m grateful to have it now.”
What does she remember of that time? “I was this free-spirited, hippie girl and I was like, ‘what is modelling?’ I had graduated from school and I had hitchhiked around the world. I had the offer of trying out modelling for a little bit. I was not very interested. I wanted to be a photographer or an archaeologist or to combine them both. But I tried out modelling and I was so fortunate – I got to immediately work with some incredible talents in the business.”
But even at the height of her busy years of modelling, Helena says that at the end of a shoot she took time to explore wherever in the world she happened to be. “At some points it was deeply frustrating for me. I’m such a gypsy at heart. Wanting to explore the world was one of the main reasons I even found modelling interesting at all from the beginning.”
Did she ever feel pressure to change herself to fit better into fashion life? “No,” she says, adamantly. “I never, ever, felt any pressure in any way at all to do anything differently to how I was already living my life. And if I was ever in a situation I was uncomfortable with, I spoke out immediately.”
Helena attributes her strength and self-confidence to her parents and her upbringing. She describes her mother, Elsa, as her greatest inspiration. “She is an absolute magical unicorn in my life and in so many people’s lives. I hope I have some of her qualities and I hope that my son has grown up feeling some of her magic through me.”
“I never, ever, felt any pressure in any way at all to do anything differently to how I was already living my life. And if I was ever in a situation I was uncomfortable with, I spoke out immediately.”
Helena says that when she was a teenager, her mother would make special meals to help her put on weight. “I was really tall and skinny from a very young age,” she says. “I was hungry and constantly eating. And that was an issue because when you’re young, however you’re different, is just not nice. You’re so vulnerable.”
I ask if the word “diet” ever came up for her as a young model. “Never – the whole [idea of] dieting was not in my universe. For me, having anyone tell me when I was in my 20s, ‘Oh my god, you look so great and you’re so skinny,’ I would actually be so upset.”
“I don’t care if I look beautiful to anyone else, and it’s not even about looking beautiful per se, it’s about just feeling and looking healthy.”Credit:Jason Kim/Trunk Archive/ Snapper Images.
From cooking family feasts to simple dinners, Helena says food has always been a huge role in her life. “A big part of that is growing up with a South American mother who was in the kitchen all day cooking for me and my sister and my dad. We ate everything from the moment we entered this world, and I’ve been like that ever since. That’s how I brought my own kid up – there is nothing we don’t eat.” (Helena and actor Norman Reedus, who is the father of her son Mingus, separated in 2003.)
As a woman with many triumphs under her belt, does she find it annoying that women are often still judged just on how they look? “I mean, yes, in many ways,” she says, breathing a heavy sigh. Helena makes a conscious effort not to talk about age in her interviews, because she feels that men are not asked in the same way.
“Women are talked about regarding their looks and accomplishments, and in a physical way, whereas for men it’s mostly their accomplishments,” she says. “Inequality, in any way, it’s just f…ed up. Yes, women have come a long way but I feel like we’ve said that for so many years and yet there’s still such a long way to go. I don’t know what the solution is. I guess we are sort of on the right path,” she says, her voice laden with quiet frustration.
“We don’t need to look beautiful for anyone else, it’s just to make ourselves feel good. That’s what it really is like now. I don’t care if I look beautiful to anyone else, and it’s not even about looking beautiful per se, it’s about just feeling and looking healthy. And being and having an inner contentment and self-confidence.”
Part of this self-confidence comes from looking after her skin. As well as a love of walking around her house in hair masks and face masks (“I love hundreds of beauty products”), Helena tells me she recently tried Ultherapy, which uses ultrasound technology to tone and tighten the skin on the face.
“Your face has a ton of muscles and you need to activate your muscles and take care of your skin as much as your body,” she says. “That’s why I think non-invasive treatments are great, because they actually activate your own collagen and activate your skin and your muscles in your face.“
She regularly sees a facialist in New York, mainly for microdermabrasion, and has laser treatments once or twice a year for sun spots.
Whatever she’s doing, it’s certainly working. And while I may have only had a glimpse into Helena’s reality, in all its sparkling-windowed glory, I tell her I will be following her “visual diary” on Instagram.
“I only went on to social media about four or five years ago, because I have endless amounts of photographs and I thought it could become a journal for me,” she says. “It’s just like a story that follows your life.
“I hope I can sit down when I’m over 100 years old with my grandchildren and just tell stories.” I have a feeling she’s just getting started.
Stella Magazine, The Sunday Telegraph (UK)