Interviews with supermodels often begin with a list of strict requests and warnings, then several people nervously listening in should you deign to veer off topic. So it’s both shocking and refreshing when I enter my Zoom call with Helena Christensen to hear her calmly instructing the press associate that their presence isn’t required and she’d rather just have a “personal conversation” with me.
Given our chat has been delayed after storms in Denmark forced her to spend the previous day running around emptying buckets of water that had been leaking through the roof of her home, it’s soon apparent that Christensen is refreshingly far from the “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000” supermodel stereotype.
And yet, supermodel she very much is. Almost 35 years since she moved to Paris to pursue a modelling career after winning Miss Universe Denmark, Christensen is today as alluring as the young woman who walked for Versace and Chanel and starred in Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game video – deemed by MTV “the sexiest music video of all time”.
This summer, she walked the runway at Copenhagen Fashion Week for Scandi designer Stine Goya, posed on red carpets at Cannes Film Festival and starred in a new Gap campaign. In every instance, she looks like the woman so many of us might aspire to be: radiantly beautiful but also completely relaxed and at ease in her own skin.
Or as the half-Peruvian, half-Danish model describes it, having “this special light about you”. It’s a quality she puts down to her deep love for nature and the outdoors. “Being in nature energises me more than anything and makes me feel more alive than anything,” she tells me, her accent an elegant blend of US drawl and Scandi staccato.
“I love swimming in rivers and oceans, cooking, eating, collecting flowers, smelling roses, hiking, watching leaves change colour and drop in autumn, being in the snow. I feel that, because I love all those things so much, it invigorates me and rejuvenates me. And that becomes an organic way of feeling really good.”
It’s a typically Christensen response to an inquiry about her secret to looking so radiant at 54. She hates talking about the tweakments and plastic surgery that many women her age have come to rely on, saying, “I don’t even want to get into that. It’s so boring to talk about. I really don’t care one way or the other, to be honest.”
Instead she tells me about staying healthy with the unique recipes she cooks up at her homes on the Danish coast and in the Catskills mountains in upstate New York – “I’ll make a chicken or salmon stew with hundreds of different ingredients in them and they just slowly cook and end up tasting quite unique” – and “staying grounded” with cold-water swims, which she documents for her 1.1 million Instagram followers.
Another of Christensen’s obsessions is underwear. She has a vast collection of vintage pieces that she has been collecting since she was 13. In the UK, her first stop has always been the label Coco de Mer. “Shopping there every time I came to London was something I really looked forward to, just having my own little shopping experience and coming back home with beautiful pieces.”
For the past two years, Christensen has modelled in their campaigns, showcasing delicate lace bras and knickers with the insouciant blend of wit and sensuality she’s always possessed.
This season, Christensen is instead behind the camera, deploying her passion for photography to shoot the model and body positivity activist Charli Howard. “She’s beyond magical,” Christensen says of her subject. “It’s basically a dream job for a photographer, she’s just a really cool person.”
Combining photography with modelling has allowed Christensen to create a career that works on her own terms and is far more enjoyable, she says, than the whirlwind of those early days when she shot to fame alongside her fellow supers, idolised the world over.
“It was very intense back then, because the fashion world was exploding, but I never saw a single Vogue or fashion magazine before I went to Paris aged 20,” she reflects, exclaiming “oh God, no!” when I ask if she ever had modelling ambitions growing up.
“We were that little handful of girls who were thrust in the middle of it and had that immense experience together throughout our 20s and then kept working. And that’s the best thing about it: it wasn’t just an experience early in my life; I’ve had the opportunity to keep going, which meant I could explore so many different avenues of my career.”
A quartet of Christensen’s fellow supers – Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington – have recently starred on the cover of Vogue. The issue comes out after we speak, but she emphasises how close she remains to this gang of women with whom she ruled the fashion world.
“We text almost every week and catch up every time we’re in the same city. It’s like having a group of close girlfriends that you experienced something with at a very young age, that no one around you did. We’re the only ones who really know what it was like and that experience has bonded us for life.”
Christensen stands out as a super who has always followed her own free-spirited path, something that is evident in her boho-chic (or “quirky” as she calls it) personal style, which originated in the flea-market browsing she used to do in Paris.
“I didn’t find [dressing up] much fun when I was younger, I just saw it as work,” she says. “Now I care. I think it’s way more fun to turn up on a job and look at all the clothes to see what I’ll be wearing that day and what little stories it might inspire in my head.”
Out of work, “I still just dress in my own way,” she continues, recounting how she likes to wear her vintage underwear pieces when she goes out, sometimes layering them up. “If I read anything about having inspired someone I’m like, oh, OK,” she laughs, feigning confusion.
Fashion is something that means so much more to Helena than just throwing on some clothes. She muses over the stories threaded through the 100-year-old nightdresses she owns and reflects on her own role in the history of haute couture:
“I realise now that I’ve been part of an incredible history of clothing, how they were handmade on my body for haute couture shows. I was part of a Chanel curation with a vintage store that has all these amazing pieces called What Goes Around Comes Around in New York, and when I wore some of the same pieces I wore in my early 20s on the runway for the campaign we shot recently, it made me realise I was there when they were sewn onto my body.”
Christensen’s grounded, thoughtful approach to life can be traced back to her upbringing as the eldest daughter of a Peruvian mother, Elsa, and Danish father, Fleming.
“Every step I’ve taken in my life has been inspired by my heritage,” she says. Her father died in July. “He had this quiet strength, this quiet love, which all came out so much in his last years,” she reflects. “He was always just the coolest cat ever. So funny, so smart. But in a very sort of down-to-earth, mellow way. I have even more respect for him than I’ve ever had my entire life.
“It really just makes you feel this beautiful peace inside, knowing that this was your family, your father. For anyone losing a parent, obviously there’s all these emotions they go through, but the fact that I can feel this immense love for him, knowing how much he felt that for us and how much he protected his family, it’s not everyone who can say that.”
A fully signed-up member of the sandwich generation, Christensen has juggled this loss with the excitement of her son Mingus (whose father is the actor Norman Reedus, from whom Christensen separated in 2003) graduating from New York University this summer, which she marked with a picture of her and Reedus celebrating with him.
“It’s amazing, it makes you think back on when you graduated yourself and what happened, and then suddenly, it seems like time goes by so fast. So I just told him to enjoy it. Just be in the moment and don’t rush anything.”