Karen Elson is not what you expect. When she’s peering fiercely at you from behind a curtain of red hair on the glossy covers of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Muse, and more — that is, where most of us mere humans are accustomed to seeing her face — she’s stunning, intimidating, often alien in her beauty and ferocity. Here in her management company’s studio in downtown Nashville, however, Elson is humble, warm, open, unassuming, even self-conscious at times — and definitively dressed down in plaid and jeans and clunky lace-up boots. (If the desired outfit effect was to somehow obscure or distract from her utter radiance, though, it is not working.)
In fact, she’s so down-to-earth that as we chat, I easily forget that we’re not just two tall flannel-clad divorced moms complaining about the trials and tribulations of sending our kids back to school in person during a pandemic here in the ever-frightening, mask-flouting South. I mean, we are those people; one of us just happens to also be a supermodel/musician with two albums out as well as a gorgeous new art book-cum-memoir, The Red Flame.
The book, much like Elson, comes as a surprise. Judging by its cover, it’s a coffee table hardback of superb quality, a visual chronicle of Elson’s decades-long modeling career since she was discovered in her native Manchester, U.K., as a teen. But start reading it, and you realize this is also a deeply raw, honest, and intimate autobiography in which Elson unearths so many truths about modeling, motherhood, and the ways we live with and learn from our own bodies and minds. And perhaps what speaks most highly of Elson is the fact that she is completely open about all of it — from her eating disorder and being told she wasn’t “fit to model socks” to the fashion industry’s white supremacist history and the recent call to arms for models’ rights — with her own children, Scarlett Teresa and Henry Lee, whom she shares with ex-husband Jack White.
After all, raising our kids in an environment in which honesty and accountability are paramount is the best way we can empower them to build a better world — a mission that, for Elson’s “little feminist” kids, as she says, seems already well underway.
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Yes…I know, it’s been quite the week of self promotion, but not every week you release a book. I’ll take any opportunity I can these days to find joy and spread joy. Speaking of… joy was the mantra of last night. My dear friends in Nashville organized such a lovely treat that was the tonic that I needed…in red, white and rosé swipe to see all the fun pictures!🍷🥂🍾. Thank you @emilydorio for these amazing photos! Delicious food made by @hen_ofthewoods Decor and all fancy things @maykercreative The woman who put this all together the badass @relic.home Flowers arrangement and moral support @follojosi My outfit is an amazing golden @marcjacobs @themarcjacobs look from the early 2000’s As I said in my last post. I asked all the 12 people who attended got covid tested before, we are outside, along with a lot more protocols. These moments are rare right now which is why we must be as careful as humanly possible, I say that as I crawl back into my cave for the foreseeable future. Thank you everyone for all the moral support and sweet messages this week. It’s been a great week in a year that’s been frankly brutal. I’ll get back to the regular programming next week, an election is looming, many more important things to dwell on. #theredflame #dinnerparty #karenelson #book #redhead #fashion #rizzolibooks #rizzoli
SheKnows: So your kids have gone back to school, how has that been?
Karen Elson: I’ve got to applaud the schools for being super cautious, following such strict protocols, it can’t be easy for faculty, any of that stuff. I think it’s going to be trial and error. It may get shut down… One child started in August, one just recently went back. It’s definitely not easy but the kids are actually happy to go back to school, they’ll be fine if we go back remotely as well. By the end of the last school year, they had it more dialed in than I was. They’re resilient.
SK: And what was your quarantine like?
KE: We were in Nashville, which I was grateful for, we weren’t just stuck in an apartment in New York… I didn’t get stuck anywhere while I was working and separated from my kids; that would have been heartbreaking. I was just home. And honestly, for all the trials and tribulations of this time, it’s been really nice to have so much quality time with each other. I mean, I’m sure my kids are sick of me right now but we also had some really good quality time. We tried to make the most of it. It’s a really tricky, difficult, scary situation — but just the fact that we were all in it together… even my neighbors were were kind of checking in on each other.
Before this pandemic happened, I lived a global life. I could be on a plane to England for a couple days, then back home for the parent teacher conference, then off on a plane to somewhere else — so it’s made my life a lot smaller, but there were a lot of benefits there. I got to know my neighbors more, I felt my sense of community especially here in Nashville more than I ever had. And that’s a beautiful thing. I had some neighbors who had COVID, and just our entire community really rallied together to make sure that those who were sick, if they need groceries, if they need anything, that we could — from a distance — be there.
SK: And it’s so much more of a contract of trust than we’ve ever had, it’s like this new consent practice.
KE: And it’s trial and error with that too, especially with my kids if they want friends to come over, I have to know the parents. I want to know what they have been doing. Actually this week I had this thought where I went, my god, COVID is really hard but it’s also particularly sad because I can see at times friendships getting affected. There’s this air of distrust. You know, like, Are that family doing what we’re supposed to be doing? Am I doing what we’re supposed to be doing? I’m trying my best to do everything I’m supposed to do. But I’m sure there’s moments where things have slipped through the cracks that everybody has done — but you can’t afford to make mistakes right now.
It’s tough because you do…have to follow the rules. I saw the whole thing at The Fashion House in Nashville and I was like you guys, that’s a little stupid now… I had a dinner for my book last night and I had 12 people, but I made everybody get tested. And I put on the invite: These are my protocols, follow them or don’t follow them and just don’t come.
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Hello Friends! The #NashvilleKABCollection is opening this week, just in time for Breast Cancer Prevention Month! Most of us know someone who’s struggled with breast cancer and early detection is key. I’m honored to be a part of this project with so many incredible women I admire and love and can’t wait for you to see the 87 beautiful breast casts, including mine, and learn all about the @KeepABreast mission!! This show is FREE and open to the public THIS FRIDAY, Oct 2 at the @RiversideRevivalNashville in East Nashville. Oct 2 – Oct 31 OPEN DAILY 11:-5:30pm FREE Show & COVID Compliant Bring your masks and head in over! . My cast was painted by the brilliant @davidonri who did such a beautiful job. swipe to see how the process began @shaneyjo @sarahbaer first photo @judithhillphoto 🙏🏻#keepabreast
SK: How are you feeling about the upcoming election?
KE: It’s a funny world right now with politics and I just hope that we’ll get a little levity from all this chaos right now, fingers crossed. But I’m a green card holder so I can’t technically vote — even speaking about elections might be a little persnickety for a green card holder but I’m doing my best to just say, this is what I believe in. All the right things. Trump’s problem is that…great leaders measure their words. They know how to say the right thing at the right time. You think about Obama for instance and the things that would come out of his mouth were just so gracious. And Trump’s big problem is his Twitter. I’m sure his followers would say no that’s his greatest thing, but every day it’s a rollercoaster. It’s a rollercoaster for the markets, it’s a rollercoaster for the safety of the world.
SK: And you’ve been a sort of expat here in the U.S. for a long time, do you see yourself staying here for the long haul?
KE: I don’t know! Honestly. Who knows, once my kids have grown up, where the next chapter might take me. Never in my life have I said any place is fixed. I love having the sort of global mindset of, the world is my own. Once my kids are grown up I might say, I want to go spend three months in this country or that country and then come back to Nashville. The beauty is, for me, traveling pre-pandemic was a big part of my life. I think when this is over, if it ever will be, I will be traveling a lot more again.
SK: So I read your new book, The Red Flame, and I was honestly surprised by what a powerful personal memoir it is — not just a beautiful art book.
KE: Thank you! I love beautiful fashion coffee table books, I’ve got a ton and I absolutely adore all of those. But I knew, doing this, that I wanted to delve deep into my personal experience… You know that wonderful model Emily Ratajkowski, I saw her article that she wrote in The Cut. And, you know, I wrote in the book about issues with model’s rights and nudity and our lack of agency over ourselves and when I saw her article I was like, finally we’re all starting to take ownership of these experiences we’ve had in order to educate the business going forward that you have to value us.
We’re not just a product on the shoot; we’re a living breathing entity who deserve rights. We deserve to feel safe when we’re on set, and deserve to say no to something that feels uncomfortable. The days of the silent muse doing whatever they’re told, those days are over… A lot of the beautiful and powerful women that I know in fashion, they’re so multifaceted and their voices need to be heard. Not just worshipped — heard.
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This image makes me so happy. First of all I was so happy to be on my first shoot since early March, second of all I’m shooting with friends, third I’m shooting in Nashville and last but not least I was happy this shoot kicked off the the beginning of my book press. I’m so proud of my book The Red Flame it’s been such a labor of love and I hope you’ll enjoy it! I’ll be posting a pre-order link soon. Stay tuned! @rizzolibooks @theststyle #sundaytimesstyle #karenelson #fashion #rizzoli #theredflame #book #bookstagram
SK: You write so beautifully in your book about tough topics such as your eating disorder and the pressure to shoot nude. How have you broached those conversations with your kids?
KE: I’ve had a lot of conversations with my kids about all of these things; they’re relevant to kids growing up today in general. Especially with my daughter, I’ve had a lot of conversations about the pressures that young women feel to look a certain way, to act a certain way, and how to advocate for yourself. I’m proud that my daughter is a little feminist and is probably at this point even schooling me, on so many things. These days, I listen to her and go, wow, you are ahead of the curve with a lot of these things. She’s taught me a lot recently. But I think it’s important for young women to know that when they’re seeing a picture in a magazine there’s so many other things that are at play. To not take that as the standard of beauty. To take that as, it’s a fantasy. It’s not reality. Highly likely any picture of me has been heavily retouched…where I don’t even recognize myself. It’s not reality.
The days of the silent muse doing whatever they’re told, those days are over… A lot of the beautiful and powerful women that I know in fashion, they’re so multifaceted and their voices need to be heard. Not just worshipped — heard.
SK: Do you think fashion is evolving to be a more accepting realm?
KE: I do think things are changing in the fashion industry. It’s not there yet, but there’s been change and we’ve got to be grateful for the degrees of change. This season alone the Versaci show was so beautiful and so diverse, it had body diversity, every kind of model of different ages and body shapes and ethnicities. And this show I went to Italy for, Fendi, it was a real wash of just every kind of woman. And I want to see more of that, because I think it helps young women growing up who look at these women and aspire to be them to go, ok, I don’t have to be a size zero. The size zero narrative is just so overrated; it’s also deeply rooted in racial discrimination as well. And it’s time we talked about this stuff. Because when you start realizing, oh, the coveted size zero is really based in white supremacy — it really makes you think deeper about fashion and what fashion’s responsibility is to really break that mold completely.
SK: On social media too, it’s not just the magazines anymore.
KE: And I know that all of this stuff is fake, they’ve heavily filtered themselves, they’re subtly advertising things, and it’s all an idealized life. That’s what I want to say about social media: It’s idealized. Even when you’re trying to be earnest… Social media in general, I love it, and it’s a burden and it’s my Achilles heel as well, but I look at it with healthy eyes. I know what I’m looking at is… a curated version of somebody’s life. It’s not real life.
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Happy Birthday to my incredible daughter Scarlett. I cannot believe you are 14 years old. How did the time go so fast? It feels like yesterday that we were here watching you eat birthday cake for the first time and dance in your diaper to Bo Diddley. I remember you looked into my eyes at 3 days old and I knew you had me figured out. I marvel at what an intelligent and thoughtful young woman you are. Often people tell me “it must be hard with a teenage girl” but truthfully you’re more wise and grounded than a lot of adults I know. Words can’t explain how proud I am to be your mother. You are radiant, wise, kind and beautiful. I love you to the moon and back forever my dear one. ❤️❤️❤️
SK: And you don’t post much about your kids on social media. Was that a conscious decision?
KE: Yep, it is. I want them to have their own autonomy, I want them to have their own lives that are irrespective of me and their father. And have their privacy and their right to privacy and not have me constantly putting them on display. They don’t necessarily want that. They want to do their thing, they want to be kids without all my friends or followers watching them or judging them. I’m grateful for them to have their privacy and I’ll give them that.
SK: What are you most looking forward to in a post-pandemic world, if and when we get there?
KE: Especially in the fashion world, we were all running on empty before this pandemic. Everyone I knew, we were exhausted, running on fumes. I think…for a lot of people in creative industries who were just going-going nonstop, the pause has been very been cathartic and very inspiring. I think a lot of people are going to be making a lot of beautiful things coming out of this — powerful things, meaningful things… Instead of just mass-producing stuff because we feel like we have to, there’s a lot more intention in what we do. A lot more creativity and focus on the craft of stuff… Especially in fashion, so many fashion designers were exhausted. Doing so many collections a year. I think this time is going to flip the old model on its head and bring something else to the table that is maybe less frantic. So we’re not pushing people to the brink in order to fulfill their obligations. That there’s a little bit of levity.
SK: You know, your mention of the pandemic as a “forced pause” actually reminds me of your book, when you write about being hospitalized for an eating disorder at age 7, and once you’re in the hospital you’re able to eat again.
KE: It’s a big metaphor isn’t it? You take yourself out of a situation that is stressful and you put yourself in a situation that is less stressful and you go wait, this is the first time in years that I’ve felt [normal]. Especially with the pandemic, there were so many people asking “Are you okay??” thinking that somehow, me stopping would be the worst thing. And I mean, I have to recognize that I’m in a privileged position, I have not lost a job, thank god I am not struggling to put food on the table or pay the bills right now, so I am incredibly privileged to have this opinion, but: It was so nice to spend so much quality time with my children, and to not be on the go all the time. I realize how actually that was contributing to a lot of anxiety in my life — always moving, never stopping. So going forward, that’s something I’ll keep in mind in my life: to carve out more personal time for me, more space, not always on a plane every week. You know, it sounds great but it lends itself to not feeling grounded. And feeling grounded is the feeling I want to feel most.