Helena Christensen On Putting Feminism Into Action, Today's Supermodels, And Her Secret Career

BY Harper's Bazaar Arabia / Nov 5 2018 / 19:19 PM

Celebrating three decades in the industry, Helena Christensen continues to lead the charge of models using their voices to inspire generations – one conquered dream at a time

Helena Christensen On Putting Feminism Into Action, Today's Supermodels, And Her Secret Career
Ziga Mihelcic

She is one of the fashion industry’s most recognisable faces and we are sitting knee-to-knee (and three abreast) in the back of an Uber on our way to Helena Christensen’s hotel fresh from our Bazaar photoshoot. With the front seat occupied, I offer to sit in the middle but despite her 5ft 10in frame, Helena insists. She is immediately personable and down-to-earth.

The Danish-born model and photographer are mesmerised by the desert, it’s that time of day when the light mellows and the sun starts to set. We’re winding our way through the sands of Al Maha’s Desert Resort back towards the main road and she’s constantly raising her phone to the window to capture the magic. “It’s a peace like no other,” she muses, appreciating our serene surrounds. In between photos she’s tapping away at her phone, enhancing freckles on a picture she’s taken of herself, “I’m all about having freckles and skin texture. I love it. It’s what makes you unique.”

Helena Christesten

Kaftan, Dhs6,400, Tory Burch.

Her feline-green eyes are even more beautiful in real life, and she looks like she hasn’t aged at all since 1992, but Helena Christensen is nothing like the model persona whose image is conjured up by the idea of the ’90s supers – ‘The Magnificent Seven’ as they were known. If squad goals had existed in the nineties, then Helena and co were the ultimate power posse. When she arrives today though, she’s wearing a light floral dress by a small sustainable brand called Christy Dawn, well-loved Ancient Greek sandals and a smattering of discreet and delicate jewels. She’s more mother-earth than mother-of-all models, a vision more akin to her bohemian spirit and environmental-activist values. Between takes, Salut the camel proves the most worthy contender for her affections, but when the photographer is in motion and she’s decked in gold Temperley, the transformation is phenomenal. It’s this chameleon-like ability to transform from mum to million-dollar model, to the photographer and benevolent UN ambassador so seamlessly that’s made her success so infinite. Over 20 years after her heyday, she’s as relevant as ever and her career is showing no signs of waning.

First and foremost, though, she’s mother to Mingus, 19, whose father is an actor, Norman Reedus. “I always, always prioritise my son, he came before anything. Not in a way that it became an obstacle, just in an organic way. It didn’t ever stop me from pursuing any of my other loves or passions. When he was little I would bring him along, and I would bring my mum along, and she would help me out. I’ve just been able to manoeuvre my way through all of them – my jobs – and at the same time be there for my kid.” Mingus shares his mum’s piercing looks and was cast in Raf Simons’ second-ever Calvin Klein show last year, but despite his ability to seduce the industry, the feelings weren’t mutual.

“He doesn’t want to model. He’s like, ‘Mum, can we please let that go! It wasn’t for me,’” she laughs. “He did it, he tried it and he’s over it.”

It was when Helena was the same that she relocated to Paris after being discovered by a photographer, Friedemann Hauss. “Working as a model almost gave me an education as a photographer at the same time,” she says. For Helena, modelling was a way to bring her photography out into the world, but as her career skyrocketed, she made a seamless entry into the most elite supermodel enclave of the ’90s. Her list of accolades, and the talents she’s worked with are too many to even begin to list – Wikipedia suggests she has over 600 magazine covers – but Gianni Versace described her as, “the world’s most beautiful body”.

Helena Christesten

Dress (underneath), Dhs7,045; dress (top), Dhs8,365, both Missoni. Earrings, Dhs2,327, Amy Gattas. Headscarf, stylist’s own

“They’ve both – modelling and photography – given me so many opportunities,” she tells us. “Now, they approach me as a photographer and I’m able to raise awareness with my photography because I’m a public person, so it all ties in together,” she tells us.

From her debut into the realms of modelling as Miss Denmark in 1987 to as recently as July this year when she walked in Dolce & Gabbana’s Alta Moda show, Helena has remained very much a part of the industry, and the only thing that she really feels has change over time is her appreciation for it. “I’ve worked in the business for so long I’ve been a part of its history. “It might not have seemed so exciting at the time, as you can be standing in fittings for hours, but now I realise how lucky I was to experience that. And I still am.”

Speaking of the “breath-taking” Dolce & Gabbana couture show held in Lake Como she says, “It blew my mind seeing all the older ladies again with their pins, and needles, and threads, in their white coats, sewing on tiny little flowers up until the last minute. Some of them out in the garden where the show took place, sitting underneath in the shade of the trees, still sewing. It was really emotional for me. The poetry of that was just beautiful.” As well as acknowledging the fashion industry for “providing an opportunity to anyone who has talent, discipline, a work ethic and creative mind”, she also feels, right now, that there is a lot of strength and power coming from the business which is really inspiring. “Models have more of a voice – it’s becoming quite powerful.”

Helena Christesten

Jumpsuit, Dhs14,950, Dolce & Gabbana. Perfume oil necklace, Dhs955, Strangelove NYC

To date, Helena has lent her voice and influence to countless philanthropy projects, from raising awareness about sustainability in fashion – a change she would like to see become more prevalent in the industry, to lending her support to breast cancer and AIDS projects.

“I love the way the fashion business is active in raising awareness about all kinds of issues. Any time I can be a part of that, I am.”

Her role as a supporter for the UN Refugee Agency has also provided the means for her to step behind the lens and use her photography for charitable causes. One specific experience that has remained etched in her memory stemmed from a trip a few years ago. “I went to Ukraine and the mission was to capture some of the stories of elderly refugees who had been displaced and neglected by the conflict. One of the places we visited was a home where a man and his family had taken in a group of men and women who had been forced to flee, they were living in cramped conditions in the basement. It was such a heart-breaking and heavy experience that I couldn’t return without doing something.” In the end Helena succeeded in helping raise the funds to get them moved into a bigger home where “they all had access to light, and air and a garden.”

After her shoot with Bazaar, Helena headed to Rwanda to visit female refugees. So impassioned by what she saw, she emailed us afterwards so we could update the feature, saying: “I just came back from a trip with the UNHCR to a refugee camp in Rwanda where I saw feminism displayed in the most beautiful and powerful way. Women are creating their own small businesses by setting up work studios where they employ other women to help produce clothes and handicraft. . In doing so, they’re empowering the entire community of women, enabling them to create a better future for themselves and their families.”

Two other projects currently taking up most of Helena’s time are Strangelove NYC, her debut into the world of artisan perfumery with her friend and business partner Elizabeth Gaynes, and Staerk & Christensen, a creative collaboration with Danish designer, Camilla Staerk. Both are stories of women empowering women, unity and friendship. “They are two companies that I’m very passionate about. Because they’re both very small, it’s very few people taking care of a lot of things, so that’s where a lot of my time goes.”

Helena’s relationship with Strangelove NYC was a bond formed through motherhood. “Helena and I met because our boys were at school together,” Elizabeth tells us over coffee during our shoot at Dubai’s Al Maha Desert Resort. Having previously co-founded GaiaOne, a company dedicated to developing plantations in Borneo that farm raw ingredients like oud, for the fragrance industry, Elizabeth says, “I had just come back from a trip to Borneo and I gave Helena a sample oil to smell. She said, ‘Oh my god if you ever do something with this, count me in. It’s so beautiful.’ So I then decided to form a company and she wanted to be involved. From the beginning, we decided we didn’t want to do anything ‘celebrity’, so Helena is creative director, and she’s amazing at it. We launched in the Harrods Salon de Parfums in 2014, with only one product, but we’ve grown with them and developed this huge cult following, especially in the Middle East, because our clients recognise that we use real oud, rather than synthetic versions.”

Helena Christesten

Dress, Dhs9,500, Etro. Headscarf, stylist’s own

As well as being captivated by the sensuality of fragrance, the pair also shares a passion for actively protecting the environment, and Strangelove NYC is a brand with sustainability at the core of its values. While Helena cites their differences as the glue that bonds them together, saying, “It works as a synergy. There’s that bond and that trust which is so important in a collaboration,” Elizabeth also credits Helena’s ingenious eye and natural creativity for the success of the partnership.

As for Helena’s collaboration with Camilla Staerk, the pair met 18 years ago and the connection was immediate. “It’s one of the most powerful creative connections, collaborations and friendships I’ve had in my life,” Helena explains. Both Danish, Staerk & Christensen’s designs pay homage to the fluid lines of Scandinavian design and the childhood memories Helena and Camilla share of the swallow bird. Most recently, they also launched Pawn Shop under the same Staerk & Christensen e-commerce umbrella, through which they sell a carefully curated edit vintage and second-hand designer wears – the idea that shopping vintage minimises waste and extends the life cycle of clothes is not lost on these two. So what shapes the success of their relationship?

“We are very different visually, but very similar also,” Helena begins. “She is very stringent in her form and expression, she only wears black, ever. Whereas I’m like an explosion of colours and patterns. I have a messy way of being organised and she has a very organised way of being organised. We just clicked.”

Helena Christesten

Dress, Dhs11,250, Temperley London

Helena’s eclectic nature stems from her mother’s Peruvian heritage, a side she recognises as emotional, passionate and colourful. “Basically the side of me that doesn’t feel comfortable in clothes that are too fitted or that match – something has to be off or broken in the entire picture,” Helena explains. The Scandinavian side, however, is all about lines and form, practicality and comfort. “In a way there’s always two sides of me trying to agree and balance each other out,” she contemplates.

Helena has two homes – one in New York, which serves her requisite for routine and function, and one in the mountains which compliments her wild, flower-child spirit. “I have a small farmhouse in the Catskills. It’s in the valley with the mountains around it, and the river.” It’s here she retreats to get creative, to go hiking with her dog – an Australian Shepherd called Kuma (which means bear in Japanese) – to swim in the wilderness, do yoga and to sit by the fire. It’s her thinking space. When she’s in New York, her lifestyle is more disciplined. “When I’m back in the city I’m in a routine, and I box three times a week. Anatomically, I’m so interested in how you can shape and strengthen your body, and give it power like that,” she says. “In that sense I’m probably stronger now physically, than I’ve ever been.” There’s nothing that she doesn’t eat, either. “To me it’s one of the biggest joys in life. I think very, very, very close to my love for family is my love for food – it could even surpass it sometimes,” she laughs.

Born on Christmas day in Copenhagen, Helena turns 50 next month, yet her beauty is as natural and timeless as ever, and she still manages to possess all the allure of her 20-year-old self. And while she refuses to let age define her, she still looks after her skin. “I do facials,” she says.

“I go to Amazing Spaces in Copenhagen, Joanna Vargus in New York, and once a year I go to Christine Chin and get a full clean-up. I also use this South African line called Nimue, which is ridiculously amazing. It changes your skin so efficiently.” Aside from that, Marc Jacobs eyeliner and red lipstick – “Chanel have really amazing matte ones” – is all she relies on. The rest is left to her winning lottery of Danish-Peruvian genes. But for Helena, preserving the outside is secondary to nourishing what’s on the inside. Clearly compassionate, and as someone who delights in the natural world, she feels fulfilment in giving back. She is the supermodel sewing style and sustainability, fashion, feminism and philanthropy into her life and setting an honest example for all those in her wake.

Photography: Ziga Mihelcic
Styling: Gemma Deeks
Hair and make-up: Manual Losada at Art Factory.
Fashion assistant: Nazanin Jahani.

With thanks to Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort and Spa, Dubai

From the November 2018 Issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia

Press play to get a BTS look at our shoot with Helena Christensen